Scotland’s education minister Mike Russell has said local authorities must be “crystal clear” about the educational case for shutting rural schools and the impact such closures will have on communities.
Speaking during a visit to Shetland 24 hours before councillors sit down to discuss radical proposals to effectively end the junior high school model of teaching secondary pupils, Mr Russell said he continued to be a strong supporter of rural schools.
Last year, Mr Russell approved the SIC’s closures of Scalloway’s secondary department and Uyeasound’s primary school, but overturned the local authority’s plans to shut Burravoe’s primary.
That was shortly before the minister introduced a moratorium on closures while he set up a Commission on Rural Education to examine how legislation introduced in 2010 was operating in practice. Mr Russell hopes the commission’s delayed findings will be published around the turn of the year.
The government is also appealing against the findings of a judicial review which found in favour of Western Isles council’s attempt to shut four schools.
“Any parent in Shetland should be reassured that the law means that there has to be a clear educational reason [for closures], and there has to be an absolutely clear statement of why this has happened,” Mr Russell told reporters today.
“The communities have strong rights in that process. That doesn’t mean schools don’t close – I’ve never said that, sometimes schools do close – but there has to be a fairness in the process.”
His comments came the morning after education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart admitted during a public meeting in Aith Hall that finances were the main driving force behind the unpopular new proposals.
Mr Russell said that unlike France’s education minister, who can “look at the clock on his wall and know what every child in France is learning at that moment”, he is merely responsible for “setting the context in which education operates”.
Referring to the views of people such as Sandy Longmuir from the Scottish Rural Schools Network, Mr Russell said there were those who argue strongly that it is not easy to save money by closing schools, partly due to the complexity of the grant system.
“You don’t normally save any money on salaries because you’ve got to retain the same number of teachers, you’ve got transportation costs often increased – I’m just telling you what the facts are. It’s up to the authority to justify its own decision to its own electorate.
“My job presently under the legislation is to make sure that legislation is observed correctly, but where it is not observed correctly I have the right to take that decision in and decide it myself.”
Meanwhile, on Monday Mr Russell was given a tour of the existing Anderson High School by head teacher Valerie Nicolson. The council has submitted a bid for funding under the third and final tranche of Scottish Futures Trust money towards the building of new schools, and Mr Russell said he hoped to be able to announce whether it has been successful in the coming weeks.
“Valerie told me that, had I come last week, I would have been wading ankle-deep through water in one of the places we were in,” he said. “There is a case, of course there is a case for change. It’s not a surprise the council made the bid – [education director] Helen [Budge] and the previous education convener came to see me some months ago to outline the case.”
Mr Russell said he was among the first to accept there have been problems with the legislation in practice. One thing he does advise local authorities to avoid is Christmas closures, as happened in Uyeasound eight months ago.
Asked whether he thought the SIC would be wiser to wait for the commission’s findings before pressing ahead with any new closure proposals, Mr Russell responded: “They’re entitled to do what they want, but I suppose they’ve got to balance being fair to parents with their own desire to have a clear educational policy going forward for the lifetime of this council.”
If any revamped legislation meant it was difficult for councils to shut rural schools, many councillors argue they ought to be entitled to extra funds to keep every school open.
Mr Russell said cash was “very tight everywhere”, but the “very, very complex” formula used for funding rural schools is something he expects the commission to examine “very carefully”.
He said it might be worth reminding Shetland MSP Tavish Scott – a strong critic of Mr Russell’s handling of closures in recent years – that the Liberal Democrats also voted for the legislation back in 2009.
The 59-year-old SNP politician also contended that it would help if the Scottish Parliament was in charge of all of its own funds “rather than living hand-to-mouth” from Westminster.
“I think a parliament that has to live within a financial straitjacket that comes from elsewhere and is not able to use the resources that are available in Scotland to fund Scotland’s priorities is a parliament that hasn’t gone far enough.
“Nobody should forget that the spending plans we’re living under from Westminster were originally devised by Labour, but have been intensified by Liberals and Tories. There is a responsibility for those representatives of those parties to account for the financial settlement, rather than simply to bleat about its outcomes.”