A Highland and Islands MSP has criticised the SIC after a new body was set up to make decisions on controversial school closures.
List MSP Mike MacKenzie said that the council should learn from the Scottish government in approaching school closures in a fair and transparent manner. While he welcomed the new body, misgivings remained about the way the SIC had handled consultations on rural school closures, he said.
The new School Closure Review Panel has responsibility for reviewing cases which are “called in”, and reaching a final determination. Until now, if Scottish ministers called in a local authority proposal to close a school, they would also make the final decision about the closure.
The 12-strong panel now has responsibility – this is intended to remove any suggestion of political influence. Unst resident Catriona Waddington is one of the panel members.
Alongside the amended consultation process, the government has introduced updated guidance on participation of children in decisions and the introduction of a legislative presumption against the closure of rural schools.
Mr MacKenzie, of the SNP, welcomed the panel as a step to increasing transparency and removing any criticism of political influence on closure decision-making.
“I can only contrast the way the Scottish government continually strives to do things in a fairer and more transparent manner with the way things are done in the SIC,” he added.
“I have to say that maybe this is a wee lesson for the SIC that they should follow the impeccable procedure the Scottish government is undertaking. It behoves all local authorities to behave in a fair and transparent way.”
Mr MacKenzie said that while a pause in school closures in Shetland had been achieved, certain aspects of the legislation, such as publication of the consultations, had not been adhered to.
Meanwhile Communities United for Rural Education member Karen Hannay welcomed the independent panel.
“It’s another body to provide an objective overview of the situation and it’s good that the panel will provide a broad experience of what’s happening in rural education throughout Scotland,” she said.
The panel will be able to give consent to a closure, with or without conditions, refer it back to the local authority to consider again, or refuse consent. The grounds on which cases can be called in have not changed and remain very narrow.
Minister for learning Alasdair Allan said: “The new panel will play a vital part in scrutinising school closure decisions and I’m confident it will be welcomed by communities affected by these decisions.
“Clearly, local authorities are best placed to consider how to deliver services across their communities and when it is necessary to close a school. The Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 provides substantial protections, particularly for rural schools, to ensure that any decision to close a school is only taken following careful consideration. However, sometimes these decisions require further investigation.
“The new panel strengthens and increases transparency in these far-reaching decisions, and it also removes the potential for any suggestion of decisions being influenced by political considerations. That is a perception that, despite the reality, is hard to refute. These decisions, rightly, will be taken away from the political spotlight and at arm’s length from ministers. This should be a further reassurance to parents, carers, teachers and pupils about how this important issue is dealt with.”
For each decision that is called in, the convener will be required to constitute a panel of three members. They are then required to reach a decision in eight weeks.
Convener Iain Nisbet, who is the head of education law at Govan Law Centre, said: “I am pleased to begin the work of the school closure review panels. This is an important issue for education authorities and local communities alike, and I am looking forward to working with the panel members to deliver a fair, transparent and independent review process.
“Alongside amendments to the consultation process, updated guidance on participation of children in decisions affecting them and the introduction of a legislative presumption against the closure of
rural schools, this represents a new phase in school closures and consultations.”
Mr Nisbet advises and provides training for parents, schools and education authorities on all aspects of education law. He is the chairman of the advisory group on Additional Support for Learning, and a former non-executive director with Education Scotland. He was until recently, a member of the parent council of his local school.
Mr Nisbet took up his statutory responsibilities on 30th March and his appointment will be for five years until January 11, 2020.
One of his first tasks was to appoint the initial panel members. The 11 appointees are Dr Charles Bestwick, John Russell Ellerby, Professor Donald Gillies, Helen McGhee, Forbes Mitchell, Alex Nicoll, Patricia Quigley, Dr Waddington, Sally Wainwright, Lesley Ward and Justin Willey.