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'You go to every meeting and argue the case'

Can Labour squeeze the empty desks?

The current spate of closure attempts was sparked by the 1995 Accounts Commission report on Managing Surplus Capacity in School Buildings, which said that more than 100 schools could be closed to save pound;25 million a year and avoid one-off maintenance costs of pound;25 million. But councils complain that the other side of the equation has been ignored. The report also urged the Government to provide financial incentives.

Glasgow, for example, might be able to merge more schools if it had more freedom and more money for capital investment in receiving schools. The city has "cherry-picked" the easiest candidates for closure but serious money can only be found from rationalising the secondary sector.

The Western Isles is similarly hamstrung. Roddy Macdonald, its education chairman, is keen on area schools to replace village schools. But only one - a pound;3.2 million project to replace four primaries in the Lochs area of Lewis - has received Government backing, although the two-year secondary, is not included. Mr Macdonald hopes the new Government will resolve the problems. "The Education Minister knows our situation because he has had his children educated here," he says pointedly.

Malcolm Green, Glasgow's education chairman, echoed the call for partnership. "The Government must do its part if we are to do ours and release money tied up in clapped-out and half-empty buildings," Dr Green says.

Gordon Jeyes, director of education in Stirling, says: "The fact that council fingerprints have to be all over a closure proposal before it goes out to consultation inevitably leads to the charge that the council's mind is made up ."

Basic facts are never simple. Fecundity, housing and migration are always in contention wherever closures are mooted. "Demographic forecasts are an art rather than a science," Mr Jeyes concedes ruefully, "so we need to work more closely with communities at the outset."

Among the few councils to pursue their plans to fruition are Dundee and East Ayrshire. "A key ingredient is to be seen to be listening," John Kemp, Dundee's education convener, states. "Change plans accordingly, as we did. Go to every meeting and argue the case. Don't hide from the controversies."

The unity of East Ayrshire's Labour group in closing five primaries, despite a series of high-profile legal challenges from parents at St Paul's primary in Hurlford, stood in sharp contrast to the debacle in Glasgow's ruling Labour group.

The effective end of opting-out will remove one hurdle from closure efforts. But councillors will have to move quickly - 1999 is re-election year. Their plea to the Scottish Office is to make their job easier. As one said, paraphrasing Churchill: "Give us the schools and we will finish the job."

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