Law may be changed to bring in a formal presumption against closure of rural schools. The Scottish Government in July launched a consultation on the process to be carried out when a school is shut. Education Secretary Michael Russell conceded shutting schools was "emotive" for communities but said it is important such decisions needed to be open and transparent. He said: "Rural schools have particular importance to the local economy and rural community viability. I want to ensure we protect and enhance that, while still providing councils with flexibility they need."
The 2010 Bill setting fair play process setting standards for consultation did not include a "presumption" as such. The consultation comes after the Scottish Government and local government body Cosla established an independent commission to examine the provision of rural education. It called for clarification. Many of its 38 recommendations can be introduced without legislation. The Scottish Government said it is now looking to amend the Act accordingly. Ministers are also considering if financial information on the impact of shutting a school should be put forward when councils consider closing it.
An independent body could be established to rule on cases where the Scottish Government does not agree with a council's decision to close a school and "calls it in". The Government consultation document argues that this would mean such decisions are made in an "objective and transparent manner without any suggestion of political influence".
A five-year moratorium might be introduced for schools considered for closure, preventing the council from attempting to shut them again during this period. The Education Secretary has rejected one proposal which could have made it easier to close rural schools by loosening a requirement of the 2010 Act for councils to show that closing a school would have educational benefit.
A plea has been made for Audit Scotland to be brought in to ensure the cost of closing rural schools is accurately calculated. Paul Docherty, Chair of Channelkirk School board in 2005 when it was threatened with closure (NASS was active in its successful defence), was responding to a Scottish Government consultation on the country's rural schools network. It will discuss if financial information on the impact of school closures should be in closure proposals.
This review follows evidence from the Scottish Rural Schools Network (SRSN) in April that Scottish Borders Council benefits by £1.5 million a year from its rural schools. SRSN was responding to a report by the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education showing Channelkirk brings in £213,000 per annum through grant-aided expenditure. The figure opposed the findings of education director Glenn Rodger who had claimed closure could save £1m over an eight-year period. Highlands Council previously had re-opened a school when SRSN showed it lost more by closing it.
Now Mr Docherty thinks greater financial scrutiny is needed. He said: "What I want to see from the consultation is, firstly, a standardised and very simple form detailing the costs of each school which includes the grant provided; and secondly, I want a truly independent body – possibly Audit Scotland – to look at the figures, check them and sign them off as accurate."
The Education Secretary Mike Russell said: "I want to ensure we have measures in place to protect and enhance rural schools, while still providing councils with the flexibility they need."
The Scottish Government has been harried by Councils but adheres to its declared principles in the demand for fair procedure and process when proposing school closure.