Closure-threatened schools in Shetland have been thrown a potential lifeline by the Scottish government which is to force councils to accept any viable alternative put forward by the community.
The announcement today by education secretary Mike Russell is intended to further protect rural schools and may cause more headaches for the SIC as it seeks to close up to seven schools or departments, cutting £3 million from the £42 million-a-year education spend.
It is not clear whether the tightening of the closure rules will come into force in time for the Scalloway and Skerries secondary departments whose fate will be decided by councillors in December before being reported to ministers for approval. However the council tends to take cognisance of changes in education rules in good time before they become obligatory.
If the new obstacle to closures proves too late for the two secondaries it might offer extra hope for the five primary schools also facing the axe once consultation takes place next year. They are Uyeasound, Burravoe, North Roe, Olnafirth and Sandness.
Prior to the announcement councils were already required to ensure that each closure plan is properly consulted on and will yield educational benefits – the result of legislation passed in Scotland last year to prevent destructive cuts.
But Mr Russell said that “more needs to be done” and it will now become a mandatory requirement to also investigate every alternative to closure put forward, which might possibly include reconfiguring a school or handing control to the community, as has been mooted informally in Skerries.
Failure to properly examine the alternatives will lead to ministers halting any closure, Mr Russell said.
Services chairman Gussie Angus said in the absence of any detail it was difficult to know what to make of the move until the council got “the flesh on the bones”.
The added protection for rural schools comes less than a week before the UK government announces the extent of its cuts decided in the spending review which is expected to seek reductions in spending on education of 10-20 per cent across the UK, resulting in even more pressure on local authorities to cut budgets.
Scalloway Parent Council vice-chairwoman Karen Eunson welcomed the extra hurdle to closure although those behind the Save Scalloway campaign believe they already have a strong case to ward off closure due to what they see as no obvious educational benefits or savings.
She said: “We think we have an extremely strong case anyway but if the government is coming in and saying they are going to have even stricter requirements then we would be pleased with that.”
Ms Eunson added that there had not yet been any discussions about possible alternative ways of running the school.
Mr Russell revealed some more details of his proposal this afternoon at the SNP conference in Perth after declaring that rural schools had a value that went beyond the pounds and pence of the accounts ledger.
He said he had spent much of his political career campaigning for the value of rural schools, adding: “Schools are about more than bricks and mortar. They are communities and are often at the heart of our rural communities.
“When I meet with campaigners fighting for a rural school, one of their greatest frustrations is that their ideas for alternatives to closure have not been taken on board. Too often, people feel they are not given the chance to work these ideas up; to test them and see if they can deliver an alternative to closure.”
He said such an alternative would be one to meet the needs of the children, the parents, teachers and, in these financially difficult times, the needs of the council too.
“We will work with communities, local authorities and stakeholders on fresh mandatory guidance that makes it clear to councils that they must consider all viable alternatives to closure – regardless of the source. They must listen to, examine, test and – when it holds water – accept any plan that a community brings forward to save a rural school.
“If a council fails to do so, I will not hesitate to call those plans in and halt those closures until all practical alternatives have been fully examined.”
The precise detail of the new mandatory guidance is to be worked up between the government, councils, communities and other interested parties.
At this stage it is not clear what “alternatives” to closure might encompass. A government spokesman was also not able to clarify yesterday when the extra rule would take effect, opening up the possibility that it might come too late for some Shetland schools. He could only say that consultation on the proposed guidance would take place “soon”.
At the SNP conference Mr Russell also announced the formation of a new body – the Scottish Education Quality and Improvement Agency – which will take over from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education and Learning and Teaching Scotland.