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Rural Primary Schools (Closure Guidance)

General Questions – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:00 pm on 18th November 2004.

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Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour 2:00 pm, 18th November 2004

To ask the Scottish Executive what plans it has for the implementation of its recently published guidance on the closure of rural primary schools. (S2O-4047)

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

The document "Additional Guidance on Local Authority Proposals for the School Estate, Including School Closures" was published on 30 September. All local authorities have to consider proposals for their school estate, including school closures, having regard to the guidance.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

Is the minister aware of evidence from the deep south of Scotland where a council is taking unreasonable and inconsistent decisions to close village schools? It is doing so in spite of educational and social factors, regardless of opportunities for shared community facilities, in the face of overwhelming opposition from parents and the wider community and in flat contradiction to assurances that David Mundell made in the Parliament on behalf of his Conservative colleagues on Scottish Borders Council? Taking into account all those circumstances, will the minister give serious consideration to his power to review Scottish Borders Council's decision to close Hutton Primary School? In doing so, will he pay careful attention to representations from the member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, who is sitting beside him?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

Mr Home Robertson cleverly did not, I think, mention the school of which he was thinking. However, I am aware of the situation in the Borders to which he refers and of the recent decisions that were made. He will know that such decisions have to be taken by local authorities. However, authorities require to justify their decisions to their local population, to whom they are accountable.

None of the recent decisions taken by Scottish Borders Council has yet been referred to me, so I cannot prejudge what the particular issues will be. However, I make it clear that the guidance that I mentioned sets out the tests that I will apply in considering how a council has handled a particular proposal, as and when that is referred to me. I will look at issues such as whether the educational case was fully tested, the distance of travel between the new school and the school that the council proposes to close, the pupil projections and whether new housing developments are planned for the area.

In the context of Mr Home Robertson's question, the issue is how the decision fits into the wider rural development policies for the area as a whole. The council cannot base its decision on whether to close a school on financial grounds alone. I assure Mr Home Robertson that I will listen to all the representations that are made to me about the case. When I come to look at it, I will pay particular attention to the council's handling of the matter.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

As many of us know, we are talking about Burnmouth. When the request from Scottish Borders Council to close the school—in the face of fierce opposition from the entire community—arrives on his desk, will the minister take note of his own objective, which is to put schools

"at the heart of the community - meeting the needs of communities"?

How on earth can the needs of the community be met if the school is closed?

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

As I indicated, one of the requirements in the guidance is for local authorities to be up front and open with their local populations about what they regard as the justifications for their proposals. One of the factors that must be taken into account is rural development: councils need to consider how schools fit into the pattern of their proposals to develop rural Scotland.

Ultimately, the matter is for the local authority. Although Christine Grahame mentioned only one school, I understand that two schools have recently been the subject of a similar decision. I rather suspect that Mr Home Robertson was referring to a different school. As I said, I cannot prejudge those cases because they have not yet come on to my desk.