The SNP government has announced a year-long moratorium on rural school closures, prompting Shetland MSP Tavish Scott to demand that education minister Mike Russell overturn proposals to shut primary schools in Uyeasound and Burravoe.
Mr Russell has asked all Scottish local authorities “not to progress or bring forward new proposals to close any school for one year”, which Mr Scott said meant he had “no excuse” for not calling in the two North Isles closures. It will give the communities in Yell and Unst fresh hope of a reprieve for their schools.
The education minister has until 27th June to decide whether to examine the SIC’s proposals in each case. The imposition of a freeze on new closure proposals will kick in on 20th June and will continue until 20th June 2012 while the minister establishes a commission on the delivery of education in rural communities.
At the very minimum it means a stay of execution for closure-threatened Olnafirth Primary School in Voe. The SIC had planned to stage a consultation this autumn into possibly shutting Olnafirth. That aside, the council did not have any designs on further school closures this side of local government elections next May.
Head of schools Helen Budge confirmed she would be putting a report to councillors asking them to postpone consultation on Olnafirth until August 2012, subject to the outcome of Mr Russell’s commission.
The minister wrote to all Scottish local authorities yesterday, and Mrs Budge said her understanding was that because the closure process has been completed in relation to Uyeasound and Burravoe, those schools’ future will still be determined by Mr Russell’s department within the next four weeks.
The SNP plans to take a comprehensive look at the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010, which includes what Mr Russell describes as a “clear legislative presumption against the closure of such schools and the need for educational benefits to be the driving force in any proposed closure”.
Mr Scott has met Uyeasound and Burravoe parents to assist with their appeals for call-ins on the two decisions taken by the SIC in May.
He said: “The SNP government’s proposed moratorium on rural school closures announced today must save the Uyeasound and Burravoe primary schools.
“Under the current legislation, the final decision on the schools’ future rests with . . . Mike Russell. He has yet to decide on local demands that he intervenes and stops these closures. Therefore no final decision to close these schools has been taken, but the education minister has no excuse now for not calling in these two cases.”
Mr Scott said Mr Russell seemed “hell bent on controlling Scottish education from the centre”, but said it would be “grotesquely unfair” if he allowed the Yell and Unst schools to shut.
“[He] must now call in the Uyeasound and Burravoe decision[s] and if he is consistent, treat these schools, and their parents, pupils and staff, in exactly the same way as any other rural school in Scotland that is threatened by closure.”
SIC councillors voted to shut the two small primaries to save an estimated £200,000 as part of the schools service’s efforts to shed some £5 million from its annual education spend over the next three years. Officials argue that having over 30 schools in its estate makes the cost of providing education unsustainable.
Announcing the 12-month moratorium, Mr Russell said: “The delivery of education in rural communities is about much more than a school building, it is fundamental to the social and economic make-up of a community. That is why it is the right of individual communities to have genuine consultation based on accurate information and why there is, and will remain, a clear legislative presumption against closure.”
He conceded there have been “differences in interpretation” of the legislation he introduced last year, which have resulted in “the original intentions of the act – that the educational, not financial, benefits should be the main consideration – not always being followed”.
Mr Russell continued: “To allow for a comprehensive and fair assessment of the closures process, I have asked for a one-year moratorium during which local authorities will not propose rural schools for closure.
“During this period a new Commission on the delivery of rural education will be tasked with, amongst other things, reviewing the legislation and its application and making recommendations on best practice on the delivery of education in rural areas. It will also look at innovation and the link between rural education and rural regeneration.
“I will announce more details on its remit and membership shortly, but it will have licence to think radically and will return at the start of the next year with fresh proposals.”