Legislation on school closures is too onerous on local authorities and places insufficient emphasis on the educational case for shutting schools, according to the SIC’s contribution to the Scottish government’s Commission on Rural Education.
It says a succession of lengthy consultations is soaking up too much staff time and is no longer affordable for councils. The council also backs calls from MSP Tavish Scott for ministerial call-ins after councillors have voted to shut a school to be subjected to a time limit, to eliminate uncertainty for pupils, staff and parents.
The commission was announced following education minister Mike Russell’s decision to put in place a year-long moratorium on closures. In the last 18 months the SIC has succeeded in shutting Scalloway’s secondary department and Uyeasound Primary School following call-ins, but saw its decision to close Burravoe’s primary overturned by Mr Russell last summer.
It is widely expected that a fresh programme of closure proposals will follow May’s council elections and the completion of the commission’s work. The local authority is “dissatisfied” with the consultation process it has to carry out under the existing legislation, brought in by the last SNP government in 2010.
A submission made by head of children’s services Helen Budge says financial pressures will mean “further engagement around the school estate” and stresses the importance of councils having confidence that the legislation is “transparent and understandable” for all parties.
The SIC’s well-rehearsed argument is that maintaining the existing network of 32 primary schools, along with several junior highs, creates “significant financial challenges”. Economic circumstances, both national and local, have “placed an increasing strain on diminishing budgets with building maintenance, running costs and staffing costs having to be cut to meet reducing budgetary targets”.
Nationally, local government umbrella organisation Cosla has been lobbying for the definition of rural schools to be changed. All Shetland schools are classed as being in “very remote rural” locations, despite varying in pupil numbers from three to 899. The council says this “does not accurately reflect the variation in types of school in Shetland”.
The SIC calls for a time limit on call-ins to prevent communities and children being left “in limbo”. It also points out that affected communities would welcome the chance to make further submissions to the minister after a decision has been called in.
“The call-in process is confusing and problematic for parents, pupils, elected members and communities,” a draft of the submission states. “With no set timeframe for a decision communities can be left in limbo waiting for a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ news decision.
“Communities do not understand why there is a local democratic process leading to decisions that can be overturned by ministers. This questions the role of local authorities and locally elected members managing their own affairs.”
More emphasis ought to be placed on educational benefits arising from closures, rather than focusing on other local circumstances and economic pressures, the SIC argues. Communities often argue that a school is the lifeblood of many rural settlements.
Because of requirements within the 2010 legislation, consultation reports tend to be “very long, technical and not particularly user friendly”, the council asserts.
“During a time of financial constraints this is a costly and timely exercise and that is particularly apparent when consulting on issues such as admissions policies, catchment areas and changing a school location which could be done more quickly and efficiently using local procedures,” it states.
The manner in which consultations must be carried out does not allow for a “balanced range of views” to be expressed, the SIC suggests. Given the emotive subject matter, the council believes public meetings are “not best practice in seeking the views of all who have a concern” and tends to lead to “only those against a closure being heard”.
Council officials are bogged down dealing with a “staff intensive” process which “raises community expectations with the result that closures leave them feeling let down” and “councils cannot afford this level of consultation on this issue any longer”.
The submission does acknowledge there are plus sides to pupils being educated in schools with tiny pupil rolls, including allowing children to benefit from strong community links and making it easier for parents to be “actively involved in the life of the school”.
On the flip side of the coin, the SIC faces difficulties in attracting and keeping staff in small rural schools, where there are less opportunities for employees to have professional contact with other staff.