The news that Scottish education secretary Mike Russell is to ensure that local authorities properly explore alternatives to closing rural schools in future is a tacit admission that the current rules, enshrined in an Act of Parliament last year, are rather vague. Perhaps that is why the council and the parents of children at Scalloway and Skerries secondaries are at one and the same time so certain that they have right on their side in the battle to close/save the schools.
Yet the alarming prospect now arises of councillors voting for closure just as the minister and local authorities are agreeing on a set of rules that allow parents’ and others’ suggestions for continuing education in rural communities to be heard.
As ever, the tension here will be financial. Even without the looming cuts, the failure of successive governments to put up sufficient funding to ensure class sizes meet the desired targets would not provide grounds for optimism about any programme to maintain the existing rural schools infrastructure. With unprecedented cuts in the pipeline, the bargain is almost certainly off. Which raises the question of criteria again. The notion of educational grounds, if The Old Rock is interpreting Mr Russell rightly, may be more open to interpretation than people think.
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NHS Shetland received glowing praise from Mr Russell’s cabinet colleague, the health secretary Nicola Sturgeon, this week at its annual review. It is gratifying that people in the isles receive such a high standard of healthcare and that the staff who provide it have won such recognition.