Rural Schools

– in the Scottish Parliament on 9 June 2011.

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Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick None

Good afternoon. The first item of business is a statement by Michael Russell on rural schools. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, therefore there should be no interruptions or interventions.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I thank the Parliament for the opportunity to make a statement on my proposals to establish a commission on the delivery of rural education and my request to local authorities for a moratorium on rural school closures.

In my experience, few issues have united all sides of the Parliament. However, the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010, which the Parliament agreed to unanimously in November 2009, did just that.

Before the Parliament was established, significant concerns were expressed from many quarters over many years about the procedures that local authorities had to follow in relation to school closures. In particular, there was a feeling that schools were being closed without proper and full consultation with the communities that they served. That resulted in much worry, anger and resentment for pupils, parents and staff.

Let me make it clear that, sometimes, schools have to close. Communities change, populations move and, sometimes, buildings become unsuitable. However, common decency, as well as good practice, demands that a closure must command public confidence. The process of decision making must be inclusive and transparent.

Ten years ago, in 2001, the Parliament’s Education, Culture and Sport Committee looked into school closures following consideration of a petition. One of the outcomes of that inquiry was an invitation to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to draw up new rules for the school closure process. Unfortunately, that did not take place and, as a consequence, little changed. Schools continued to close in ways that appeared to be based on little joined-up thinking regarding the impact that closure would have on the wider community and its economic and social future.

In 2007, in an attempt to address that, Murdo Fraser proposed a member’s bill. Although that proposal related to all school closures, it nevertheless had a particular focus on, and concern about, rural schools and the importance of schools to the wider rural community. It evolved into the consultation “Safeguarding our rural schools and improving school consultation procedures: proposals for changes to legislation”, from which emerged our Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Bill.

The delivery of education in rural communities is about much more than just a building. A school can be, and often is, fundamental to the social and economic make-up of a village, township or area. Therefore, at the core of any decisions about schools in rural communities should lie a presumption against closure—a policy that has existed in England for some time.

The legislation was intended to make the proposed closure of any school open, transparent and fair. We sought to increase local participation, to create a genuine dialogue between councils and their communities, and to foster a greater sense of trust between local authorities and the people whom they serve.

In addition, we put in place a number of special provisions for rural schools. In the case of proposals to close such a school, the council must have regard to three special factors before it moves to consult: viable alternatives to closure, the likely effects of closure on the community as a whole and any changed travelling arrangements for children must all be considered. That ensures that a decision to close a rural school must be regarded as a decision of last resort.

In addition, prior to the 2010 act, the involvement of ministers in closure decisions mainly related to issues around occupancy and distance. That act established a more formal role by means of a safeguard, whereby ministers can call in decisions in which they perceive serious flaws in the consultation or decision-making process. That call-in can also be triggered by community or parental request.

The key word is process. The 2010 act was and is about not prejudging or second-guessing a local authority’s decision but ensuring that the process, as enshrined by statute, is carried out properly and correctly.

At the time of the act’s passing in November 2009, most people envisaged that no more than a handful of cases would be called in. The Government had confidence in a process that the whole chamber endorsed. However, it is clear now that, for all our good work, local authorities, communities and central Government have interpreted the 2010 act in widely different ways. Those different interpretations are hindering the clear policy intention of the act, therefore they now require some action. For example, in the 12 months or so since the act came into force on 5 April 2010, councils have proposed 35 school closures. That reflects, to some extent, the financial pressures that councils are clearly under. However, the act makes it clear that educational benefit must be the basis for closure decisions. Closures that are driven by finance alone are not permitted, yet councils still buttress their closure decisions with financial rhetoric.

Of that 35, I have found it necessary to call in 17. So far, four have been given unconditional consent to close, four have been allowed to close subject to conditions and four have been refused. The remaining five are still under my consideration. Another five closure proposals are going through the process and they will be presented for my consideration shortly.

For all involved, the process is proving to be unsatisfactory. At the time, we all felt that we were making an improvement to the law, but that improvement has not led to the necessary changes on the ground, or at least not everywhere. Many more proposals for rural school closures are being made than was envisaged. The consultation process is not being followed in more cases than we expected.

During the election, our manifesto made clear our intention to strengthen the 2010 act to ensure that consultation is genuine and based on accurate information. In addition, we also want to reinforce the existing presumption against closure and find a revised means of supporting the delivery of education in rural areas. Now we must consider how that should be done. I hope that it will be done with thought, care and regard to all the relevant issues, such as the impact on the community, parental wishes, the welfare of children, joined-up services and better education. However, it cannot be delivered against a backdrop of conflict, confusion and discontent.

It is for all those reasons that last week I announced the setting up of a commission on the delivery of rural education. Among other things, it will be tasked with reviewing the current legislation and its application; making recommendations on how to reflect best practice and fulfil our manifesto commitment; examining the links between rural schools and the preservation, support and development of rural communities; looking at the funding issues surrounding rural schools and the delivery of rural education; and thinking new thoughts about the means of such delivery. Most important, it will have licence to look ahead radically and boldly. I expect the commission to make recommendations at the start of next year. I will announce the membership of the commission and its full remit shortly.

Input from a wide range of organisations and individuals will be sought to help the commission to undertake its work. COSLA and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland will be essential participants.

To allow the commission to undertake its work within a positive and proper context, I have also proposed a moratorium on rural school closures. That will create the necessary space to allow a comprehensive and fair assessment of the present school closure process and clear thinking on how it can be improved. The moratorium will run for a year. I believe that it is in everyone’s interests to pause and take time to consider the best way forward.

Many councils have expressed concerns about how the present process of proposed closures is working, as have parents and members from all sides of Parliament. Therefore, I expect and hope for a positive response from councils, parents and members of Parliament to my proposal for a moratorium. I am pleased to say that a number of councils have already indicated their support.

My aim is that we work together across the various interests to find a consensus and solve the problems that affect many parts of Scotland. There is no future in simply digging in to entrenched positions. We all want to ensure that what Parliament had in its mind when it agreed the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 can finally be applied effectively and properly, and that the need for educational benefit is the driving force and the sole motivation behind each and every proposed school closure, especially in vulnerable rural areas.

I believe that our rural communities are the fresh air that energises much of Scottish society. I am aware that the closure of a rural school can unbalance and sometimes destroy a rural community for ever. The Parliament has already agreed that action is needed to prevent that; my new proposals reinforce that agreement.

The Presiding Officer:

The cabinet secretary has completed his statement so he will now take questions on the issues that he raised. I intend to allow approximately 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. It would be helpful if members who wish to ask a question pressed their request-to-speak button now.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

I thank the cabinet secretary for the advance copy of his statement. I welcome his announcement. There are still too many battles between parents and local authorities over school closures, and the more we can remove uncertainty from the process, the more confidence all sides can have in reaching a decision.

I admit that I am intrigued that the first substantive item of education policy to be brought before us in session 4 is the Scottish Government trying to correct one of its own mistakes. I remind the cabinet secretary that in his first speech following his appointment to his present position he said:

“I am glad, therefore, that my prescience and support led to the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Bill, which was passed unanimously in this chamber—I regard the campaign on that as a success.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2009; c 21804.]

I wonder how many members would describe themselves as prescient and successful in their first contribution. Leaving that aside, where has it all gone wrong? If the legislation was such a success, why has it not worked? It is difficult not to suspect that the cabinet secretary’s personal interest in getting elected in a rural constituency that faced a large number of school closures helped focus his mind.

Will the minister clarify whether he believes that parents should have the right of appeal to the Scottish Government if a local authority proposes or agrees a school closure? Does he recognise that the Government sends out two messages to our councils—to save money and to protect local schools—which are often in direct conflict? Councils argue that closing a school will reduce capacity and therefore provide for the most efficient use of resources, and that the most efficient use of resources will produce an educational benefit. Does the minister agree with the central logic of that argument? Most parents certainly do not.

Finally, why has the minister not announced a moratorium on urban school closures? Is the legislation working well in such cases? I declare a personal and a constituency interest—I see no educational benefit coming from the closure of a successful and popular school such as Robslee primary in East Renfrewshire. Do parents and pupils in urban settings not deserve the same protection and the same clarity of criteria as those in rural areas?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I welcome Mr Macintosh to his new role. I do not know for how long he will hold it—maybe greater things lie ahead for him. With that approach to questioning, my loss might be the First Minister’s gain.

I am a great follower of J K Galbraith, who said:

“When facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

The reality of the situation is that facts have changed. We have understood that there are difficulties in the operation of the legislation that require some changes of approach. That is an indication of a mature Government, rather than an expression of anything else.

It is clearly true that the 2010 act works better in urban areas. The school that Mr Macintosh mentioned is going through a process, so I cannot comment on it, but it is the case that the legislation has been seen to work more robustly in relation to larger, urban schools than it has in relation to rural schools, because of the particular difficulties with rural schools.

I want to address one other issue that the member raised—the circular argument about the moneys from rural school closures. Very good work has been done on that and, indeed, on rural schools in general by the Scottish rural schools network. The chamber has acknowledged Sandy Longmuir’s contribution to that work, and it should do so again. Mr Longmuir has demonstrated to almost all of us that actual savings from rural school closures are very small indeed, and possibly non-existent. Any argument that money that is saved as a result of a closure will be ploughed back into the education service in an area often runs against another argument, which is that it is necessary to reduce the total amount that is spent on education in the area. In some parts of Scotland, I have seen those two arguments in the same document.

I do not believe the circular argument that Mr Macintosh asked about, and I find it difficult to believe some of the financial arguments that are made, too. However, I ask the chamber always to remember that the 2010 act requires educational benefit: closure proposals must not be about saving money. Local authorities need to remember that.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I thank the cabinet secretary for prior sight of his statement.

I have just two questions. When it comes to the length of the moratorium, the cabinet secretary implied that it was a question of revisiting the legislation and possibly the guidelines. If that is correct, all of us in Parliament have a duty to make the legislation clearer than it is now. Will it take a year to do that, or could it be done in a shorter timescale?

My second question is about the logic of what is proposed. If we are talking about a legislative or a guideline interpretation issue, should the proposal not include all schools, rather than just rural schools?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I will address both points. On the timescale, I will announce the full remit next week, but, as I indicated, it is wider than simply revisiting the legislation. If we were simply to revisit the legislation in relation to rural schools, we would not approach the matter in the right way. There are relationships between the existence of schools in remote and rural communities in particular and the health of those communities and their prospect of being able to grow and develop, and we need to look at those. However, we also need to look at different methods of delivering education—and perhaps other services, but certainly education—within rural Scotland. In some of the places that I have visited in the past year, I have been struck that no new thinking is going on about how to deliver education, or at least that it is not coming to fruition. We need to look at that. The job is bigger than simply looking at the legislation. That is what the remit will say, and I have outlined that.

On looking at all schools, I do think that the process is working better in larger schools and certainly in urban, semi-urban and accessible town areas—there is a range of definitions for schools, as Liz Smith will know—than it has turned out to work in rural Scotland. That is why I am focusing the commission on rural education and focusing the moratorium on the definition of rural schools. If representations were to be made to me about particular issues that have arisen parallel to those aspects, I would consider them, but I have not seen such representations, whereas I have seen many, many representations on the issue of rural schools.

The Presiding Officer:

Many members have asked for a question. I ask everybody to keep their questions short and I ask the cabinet secretary to keep the answers short. In that way, we will get in as many people as possible.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party

In terms of the educational delivery in rural schools, will the cabinet secretary ensure that the commission addresses the funding formula for small schools in scattered communities? They are often severely disadvantaged by the current funding packages in seeking to deliver on the educational needs of such communities in my constituency and many others.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Yes—definitely. One of the issues that I mentioned in relation to the anticipated remit was funding. The element of grant-aided expenditure that is applied to rural schools is byzantine in its complexity, and indeed in a number of cases it has been miscalculated by local authorities. It requires substantial examination and considerable simplification.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

The cabinet secretary will be aware of my strong support for the retention of Luss primary school, which is a vibrant part of my local community and central to the long-term future of the village, so I welcome the commission and the moratorium on rural school closures, and I urge Argyll and Bute Council to reflect carefully on that.

I ask the cabinet secretary about a long-standing Audit Scotland report that commented that capacity across the school estate should not fall below 60 per cent. Specifically, should that be a material consideration for local authorities?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I pay tribute to the member’s strong support for the school at Luss, and indeed her general interest in school closures, which is much appreciated. There are two sides to the question that she raises. One is the calculation of capacity. There is no uniform calculation of rural school capacity in Scotland, which is a problem. In the case that she mentions, there are widely different views of the capacity of the school. In another school that I saw recently, there was a difference of more than 33 per cent between the calculations that were made by the local authority and those made by some other local authorities.

The other side of the question is that the approach of Audit Scotland and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education has, of course, been to say that we need the best possible use of the investment that is made. However, there is no absolute bar to local authorities delivering education in the way they wish. Rural local authorities have particular difficulties, and it is incumbent on agencies and bodies such as Audit Scotland and HMIE to recognise them—indeed, they do so. My approach to the matter very much chimes with that, and I hope that Audit Scotland and HMIE will be part of the process of examining the situation through the commission. If they are, I hope that local authorities will find no barrier to full participation in relation to the issue that Jackie Baillie raised.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

Four years ago, Labour-controlled North Ayrshire Council proposed the closure of Corrie primary school on Arran, perhaps believing that the Scottish National Party Government would, like its predecessor, close every rural school that was referred to it for closure. Of course, having found out that the SNP Government had a different policy, Corrie primary was reprieved. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the commission on the delivery of rural education will have at least one island-based member to ensure that island communities are fully represented?

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

How will the cabinet secretary ensure that the commission on the delivery of rural education has strong community input to its work to ensure that its output is credible, understandable and acceptable to all stakeholders?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

That is a very good question from Mr McGrigor. A number of voluntary bodies representing parents and others, such as the Scottish rural schools network and the Argyll rural schools network, are involved. I hope to draw them into the process.

Many communities in Scotland have in a sense been radicalised in educational terms by participating in the process. Many articulate parents and members of those communities will want to take part in the process.

I will also seek to draw into the process representatives of COSLA and ADES and individual local authorities that have been struggling. I have been publicly critical of some local authorities, but I recognise that some face genuine dilemmas on school closures. I will draw those authorities into the process so that they can express their opinions.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Does the cabinet secretary agree that if rural schools are to close, the example in Angus South, where Angus Council worked closely with the communities of Lintrathen, Kilry and Glenisla to secure agreement on closure of their local primaries in favour of an environmentally friendly new build serving all those communities, is to be commended?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I do. I do not want to stand in the way of communities that are happy with the progress that is being made. In the letter that I sent to local authorities, I made it clear that I thought that where empty schools could not easily be mothballed there was a case for proceeding with the closure process. I can think of at least one school that was recently approved for closure because the community was unanimous in its view that it wanted the children to move to a newer school within easy travelling distance. It is not about imposition. However, there are many places where the community does not want schools to close. Where that is the case, we need to look at the situation again carefully.

Photo of David Stewart David Stewart Labour

I share the cabinet secretary’s view that rural schools are much more than bricks and mortar; they are the bedrock of our communities and an essential ingredient in rural development.

Given the tight financial straitjacket within which our local authorities operate, how does the cabinet secretary intend to safeguard the sustainability of the 918 schools that are classified as rural and, more important, the quality of learning for pupils in rural communities?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The quality of learning for pupils in rural communities tends to speak for itself. The outcomes for almost all rural schools are very good indeed. I can think of a number of rural schools that have been drawn to my attention in recent months that have had excellent HMIE reports. Indeed, one that I know of could not have had a better report. If there is an educational benefit in closing such a school, that is not clear to the parents and the community, because they cannot see how the education of the children could be improved.

Any equation that links smaller schools and poor educational outcomes is wrong. We need to be very careful before we go down the road of saying, “It is always cheaper to deliver education in larger units; that’s why we do it.” The analogy that I draw is that sometimes, in some places, we have to deliver services to smaller populations, and that is more expensive. Mr Stewart is a regional member for the Highlands and Islands, so he should know that. If we do not do that, we will end up following the strange logic that we should start closing down some of our roads, because in many areas they carry very few people and go to very few places. There is an additional cost, but that does not mean that it should be resented or worked against; it needs to be budgeted for, but so do alternatives. No authority is looking closely enough at good alternatives to building base delivery of education in the way that we have been doing it for the past 200 years.

Photo of Mike MacKenzie Mike MacKenzie Scottish National Party

Has the cabinet secretary heard from Argyll and Bute Council whether it intends to go ahead with its proposed school closures?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Under the ministerial code, I have no involvement in the individual school closure process in Argyll and Bute—that will be handled by another minister. As the local member, I have a very keen interest in the matter and I have attended a number of events with other members here, including Mr MacKenzie. I know that Argyll and Bute Council intends to hold a special council meeting next Tuesday to consider its response to my letter. I do not often write letters that require 36 people to gather in a room to vote on them, but in this case I welcome that. I am quite sure that the meeting will be productive and I hope that its outcome is positive.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I declare an interest as the parent of two children attending a school that was identified as a possible candidate for closure.

I certainly accept much of what the cabinet secretary said about the unsettling effect that even the threat of closure can have on pupils, staff, parents and the wider community. I welcome the establishment of the commission and agree that the way in which the legislation is being interpreted needs to be looked at.

Can the cabinet secretary please explain the steps that he plans to take should any council—including Argyll and Bute Council—not accede to his request? I think that he has answered my next question, in the main. The moratorium will not necessarily cover every school, but will he meet individual councils to discuss exceptions to the moratorium? Notwithstanding his earlier response to Ken Macintosh, does he also plan to meet councils to discuss the impact that the moratorium may have on the delivery of education and other services?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am open to discussing those matters with any local authority that wants to discuss them with me—my door is open to any local authority that wants to do so. I do not believe that the moratorium will have a major or even significant financial effect. Indeed, in one or two places, school closures would cost the councils money in the coming year, therefore I might be saving them some money.

Every local authority in Scotland except Glasgow City Council has at least one rural school, and I hope that all the authorities in Scotland that are affected—it is not an enormous number—realise how valuable the moratorium will be in helping them to make informed and productive decisions for the future. Full participation in it will be an investment in the future.

If they do not want to take my word for it, they should listen to some of their own people. I have the permission of Penny Armstrong, the chair of the parent council of Sandness primary school in Shetland, to say that, having been through a closure consultation process, she wrote to me last week stating:

“It has been evident from our interaction with local Councillors that a number of individuals do not understand the purpose of the Act, and ... fail to take on board the importance of small schools for the sustainability of very remote rural communities.”

That issue will be well known to the member, given his constituency. It is absolutely clear that, in community after community, there is strong support for getting more information, letting the commission work and informing future decision making. I hope that every local authority will listen to that.

Photo of Dennis Robertson Dennis Robertson Scottish National Party

I welcome the forthcoming moratorium and recognise that the cabinet secretary has acknowledged that there is stress and anguish around any closure. In my constituency, two schools—Clatt and Logie Coldstone—were earmarked for closure, which caused a lot of anguish and stress within the community. Parents felt that schools were closing for financial reasons only. Can the cabinet secretary give some assurance to the communities of Clatt and Logie Coldstone that the educational needs and requirements will be looked at, rather than the financial ones?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Mr Robertson will be aware that those schools are presently under consideration, and as I have not yet announced my intention in terms of call-in, I cannot comment specifically on them. However, I agree with him that the drive towards closing schools solely for financial reasons is not only damaging communities but illegal. Every local authority should know that. To be fair, most do know it, but it is necessary now to spell it out in even clearer terms.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I thank the cabinet secretary for his kind acknowledgement of my efforts in his statement, and I commend his own interest in the subject. He has referred to the financial case that is made by councils, which has been highlighted by Sandy Longmuir of the Scottish rural schools network. Will the new commission look specifically at how it can force councils to improve the accuracy of the financial case that they make when they produce a school closure consultation?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The member makes an important point. Section 5 of the 2010 act, which deals with the statement of benefit and the consultation document, is defective—we have discovered that late in the day. I am sorry that that was not obvious at the time, but it was not obvious to anybody in the chamber. The problem is that local authorities do not have to make changes if there are inaccuracies, as a result of which some local authorities have allowed things to go through that should not have. That will be part of the wider consideration of all these issues and more.

Photo of Mark McDonald Mark McDonald Scottish National Party

Many small rural schools—some with no more than 20 pupils—achieve excellent results and obtain glowing reports from HMIE inspections. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the quality of the education provision at those schools overrides the often spurious argument that children will make more friends at a bigger school, which is put forward by those who seek to close small schools?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I heard that argument put at a consultation meeting just this week. I know of no research that says that there is any disadvantage in being educated in such a school, in terms of either attainment or socialisation.

The Presiding Officer:

I thank members and the cabinet secretary for their co-operation. We managed to get through a great number of members’ questions.