The prospect of school closures has moved a step closer following the release of the long-awaited findings of a commission looking at Scottish rural education.
Shetland Islands Council is now free to decide when it should start consulting on the proposed closures of parts of its school estate following the release this morning of the 68-page report by the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education.
The SIC’s schools service is examining the findings from the commisison, chaired by sheriff David Sutherland.
The report means the path is now clear for the council to consider a specific start date for consultations on shutting Olnafirth Primary School, as well as the secondary department in Skerries, and junior high schools in Aith and Sandwick.
A statement from the authority said children’s services would continue to engage with the Scottish government, COSLA and the Association of Directors of Education (ADES) about what the findings may mean.
Education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart, said: “I’m very glad that this has finally been published. We’ve waited a long time to see the commission’s views. We’ll be studying the detail it contains over the next few days.”
The report was commissioned by Scottish education minister, Mike Russell, almost two years ago.
The main recommendations contained in the report are:
• That high standards of consultation in communities are consistently achieved.
• Educational benefit statements must improve in quality and continue to be an important part of closure proposals.
• School closure proposals should not be removed from the financial issues that are often relevant. Instead it should be required that transparent, accurate financial information is provided to underpin any financial argument made.
• Ministers should continue to have a power to call in councils’ closure proposals, determining each on their merits. Ministers should have an additional option of referring decisions back to the local authority to take them again.
• The report also highlights an opportunity to develop innovative solutions including using rural schools as community hubs for integrated services.
Sheriff David Sutherland said: “We have taken a careful look at the issues facing education in rural areas. Our report makes 38 recommendations aimed at protecting the best of what we have today and delivering improvements for future young people.
“It was clear that education should not be looked at in isolation. Sustainable rural communities depend on a range of services including schools, but also jobs and housing and that is why our report emphasises the need to focus on rural regeneration.
“Scottish rural schools are and can deliver to the highest levels. We were pleased to find that there was no barrier to rural schools delivering an excellent education or achieving to the fullest extent of curriculum for excellence.
“The issues about when and why a rural school should be closed were the most difficult the commission faced, and despite the different experiences commission members brought to our task, the commission was able to reach a high level of agreement around clear recommendations. I hope that these provide a template for improving and sustaining rural education in Scotland.”