Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education (Report)

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 13 June 2013.

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Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

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

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I thank the Parliament for the opportunity to make a statement in which I will set out the Government’s response to the recent report by the commission on the delivery of rural education.

There are few issues that unite all sides of this Parliament, but the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 achieved that distinction when Parliament agreed to it unanimously in November 2009. Prior to the 2010 act, significant concerns were expressed on all sides about the inadequacies of the procedures that local authorities had to follow in relation to school closures. The legislation was intended to make the proposed closure of any school open, transparent and fair. The act also secured a number of special provisions for rural schools: where a council proposes to close a school, it must have regard to three special factors before it moves to consult. The intention was to ensure that a decision to close a rural school must be regarded as a decision of last resort—in other words, at the heart of any decision about rural schools should lie a presumption against closure.

In addition, prior to the 2010 act, the involvement of ministers in closure decisions mainly related to issues around occupancy and distance. The new act established a more formal role by means of a safeguard, whereby ministers can call in decisions where they perceive serious flaws in the consultation or decision-making process.

When Parliament passed the legislation, most people envisaged no more than a handful of cases being called in. However, it soon became clear that, despite the Parliament’s good work, local government, communities and national Government interpreted the 2010 act in widely differing ways. The number of call-ins has risen to a level that is far higher than expected, which is undesirable. The differing interpretations of the act have hindered the clear policy intention behind it, and the improvements that we all felt we had made did not lead to as much improvement on the ground as we had hoped. That situation was neither sustainable nor acceptable, and the problem was particularly acute with regard to rural schools.

Accordingly, the Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities announced in July 2011 the establishment of a joint commission on the delivery of rural education. The commission, chaired by Sheriff David Sutherland, was given a remit to review the 2010 act and its application and to make recommendations on best practice in the delivery of education in rural areas. It was also asked to look at innovation and the link between rural education and rural regeneration.

The commission published its report on 19 April 2013. I thank Sheriff Sutherland and the members of the commission for all their hard and thoughtful work over the past two years. The commission’s report provides some clear and concise analysis of the issues, along with 38 helpful recommendations.

I have given careful consideration to all the recommendations. In doing so, I and my officials have had extensive discussions with COSLA, so that we could understand clearly local government’s view of the report. I can support the vast majority of the recommendations and, working closely with COSLA, I will be taking the steps necessary to implement them. The Government’s response to each of the recommendations is published today.

Many of the recommendations can be taken forward administratively, through revised guidance; others will require legislative change. Once in place, I am confident that the changes will lead to real improvements and will deliver more effectively the policy that the whole Parliament intended when it passed the 2010 act.

In particular, I note the commission’s assessment that greater clarity, transparency and consistency are essential on financial issues around proposed closures. Parents deserve no less. I therefore welcome the commission’s recommendations that, where financial arguments are presented, they should be based on clear and accurate data. I know that COSLA shares that view. I am committed to working with COSLA to develop the financial template and associated guidance that will deliver that.

I also welcome the commission’s advice that educational benefit statements must continue to be an important part of a closure proposal. I am happy to accept the commission’s recommendation that further guidance be provided to ensure that, going forward, those statements are improved.

However, after careful consideration I have concluded that there is one area in which the Government cannot accept the commission’s recommendation. The 2010 act established a high bar—that for every school closure proposal, a key component would be the educational benefit statement, setting out the educational benefit from the change. That principle is very dear to me, the Government and, I am sure, many in this Parliament. Education provision can and should change over time, to meet the needs of new generations of young people, but what must characterise those changes is educational improvement. That is a core purpose for every one of us. It is vitally important that a rigorous assessment is carried out of the educational impact of any change, and that closure—which can be disruptive to children and detrimental to communities—proceeds only on the basis that it will deliver an educational benefit to the children involved. I therefore do not intend to bring forward changes to the 2010 act to implement recommendation 20.

However, I know from my conversations with COSLA that local authorities are rightly concerned about how to deliver the statutory requirements of educational benefit statements, which I recognise is both difficult and challenging. In light of those discussions, it is clear that we all need better and more focused guidance on how to evidence educational benefit. I am committed to working jointly with COSLA to develop that guidance. I believe that the guidance can be improved and made to work better for education authorities and communities.

Following discussion with COSLA, I will also implement the commission’s recommendation for a greater role for Education Scotland to provide a detailed response to the proposed educational benefits and have a more sustained involvement in school closure proposals.

At the heart of this is the shared desire of Government and local authorities to improve the quality of closure proposals so that the number of cases that have to be called in for determination can be significantly reduced. That is our joint aim. It will help communities, too.

The commission’s work was unavoidably delayed by the court case that involved Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, which tested the 2010 act. The judgments in that case have now been received, most recently on 31 May. The court concluded that ministers’ role in considering school closures is to look at the merits as well as the process that was applied. The commission considered the court’s conclusion carefully and supported that approach.

Following the judgment, the commission’s recommendation and discussion with COSLA, I will introduce amendments to the 2010 act through the Children and Young People Bill this autumn. Those amendments will clarify the 2010 act and provide a statutory basis for what is required when a local authority’s closure proposal is being reviewed. I consider that it is essential to set out how the Government will in future review the local authority’s assessment of the merits of the proposal and consider the process applied by the local authority. It will be important that the approach continues to respect the primacy of local authority decision making in this area and restricts potentially open-ended consideration. None of this is about second guessing local authority decisions.

My object in proposing such amendments would be to prescribe clearly the role of ministers and the factors that have to be taken into account in coming to a decision on a closure proposal. I will consult on the principle of those amendments during the summer.

The final judgment in the case also commented on the presumption against closure under the 2010 act. I will want to reflect on that aspect of the judgment and consider whether further amendments to the 2010 act are required to ensure that that central aspect of the Government’s policy on rural schools is secured.

I recognise, as does the commission’s report, that schools, including rural schools, sometimes have to close. Communities change, populations move and, sometimes, buildings become unsuitable. However, it is our duty to ensure that such decisions command public confidence as a result of a rigorous, transparent process for any proposed closure. It must also be an objective process that reviews the specific circumstances of individual schools and recognises the different issues of rurality and remoteness that are faced by particular schools, communities and areas.

As well as accepting the commission’s recommendations on the call-in process, I want to build on them and address the issue of who should determine closure proposals that have been called in. It continues to be suggested that the nature of such decisions is not one that sits well with ministers and that it might be appropriate to take this opportunity to establish a better arm’s-length system.

I believe that responsibility for considering whether a school closure proposal should be called in should remain the responsibility of Scottish ministers. However, once a call-in decision has been made, proposals might well be best referred to a new independent decision-making body. I am exploring options for that body and considering alternatives, including dispute resolution mechanisms such as arbitration, an independent adjudicator or a panel.

I intend to work closely with COSLA in developing thinking around that issue. It is important that we get the mechanism right, so at this stage we all need to be open minded about how it can be delivered, rather than come at it with any fixed or preconceived ideas.

Such an approach would remove school closure decisions from accusations of political bias and provide an independent and objective assessment of the most controversial cases. It would also—importantly, and unlike judicial review—be easily accessible to the communities affected by the proposal.

It is important that local government has confidence in the mechanism and we will work jointly with it and parent representatives to ensure that the appropriate knowledge, skills and links are built into the process, to allow it to reach fair and objective decisions.

Schools can be fundamental to a rural community’s social and economic make-up. They allow its young people to be educated in the community, by the community. They provide a meeting place. They underpin social cohesion. They support a wider and broader learning community in the area. Their removal can undermine a community and rob it of its future. Although closure decisions are emotive and difficult, they are nonetheless necessary in some cases, but it is right that we put in place a mechanism that will allow the communities themselves to have confidence in the consultation process and its outcome.

I put on record again my thanks to David Sutherland and the commission members for their thorough and sensitive work, which goes to the heart of many issues involved. It is clear that the 2010 act has not provided the clarity that we all wished it to, and that we all have more work to do. I am committed and look forward to working closely with local government to deliver the many improvements that Mr Sutherland has identified and which both of us would like to be implemented.

I also recognise that the commission’s work has delayed some decisions and that communities and education authorities now need clarity and certainty as soon as possible. We will work as quickly as we can to deliver that clarity and certainty, including using the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill to amend the 2010 act. I hope that members will be supportive of that approach.

I believe that our rural communities and their young people are a vital force that energises and drives Scottish society. The rural schools on which they depend deserve the thorough consideration that the report has delivered and I commend it and the Government’s response to Parliament.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I intend to allow 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move to the next item of business. It would be helpful if members who wished to ask a question were to press their request-to-speak button and, in doing so, to ensure that their cards are correctly inserted.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

I thank the cabinet secretary for an advance copy of his statement.

One of the most difficult decisions that any council or councillor might have to take is to close a school. A school closure is a very emotive issue that often provokes a great deal of concern among the affected communities, and the decision to close a school is never taken easily. In 2011, following a lengthy consultation process and a democratic vote, Western Isles Council decided to close a number of rural schools, and the cabinet secretary, in a rather desperate attempt to shore up his party’s political support on the islands, intervened to call in the closure programme. Now we find that the courts have rejected the cabinet secretary’s position and that the council’s closure programme was indeed legal and followed due process. How much did the Scottish Government spend on the court case? How much did it cost the Western Isles Council, and will it be compensated?

Moreover, if the issue is so dear to the cabinet secretary and his Government, why does it apply only to rural schools and not to all schools? If the independent body makes a decision that has financial implications for the affected council, will the council receive the necessary financial support to keep the school open? Who will the independent body be accountable to? Who will appoint its members and how can the public get rid of the members who sit on it? Currently, the decision to close a school is made by democratically elected councillors who are then held to account by the electorate through the ballot box; after call-in, a Government minister is accountable to this Parliament and the electorate. What is being proposed is scandalous and political cowardice. The cabinet secretary proposes to remove responsibility from democratically elected councillors and is now refusing to take responsibility himself.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Findlay, I need a question.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Instead, the cabinet secretary proposes to hide behind a new quango, presumably appointed by himself and accountable to no one for its decisions. He clearly does not have the courage of his convictions. He should either leave responsibility with elected councillors or take responsibility himself.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am not sure that I detected a question in all that, but I will address the issues that have been raised.

First of all, I must tell Neil Findlay that the costs of the court case are not yet to hand. A process requires to be gone through; as I am sure he will know, having read all the legal documentation, the question of expenses is reserved to the final interlocutor. In those circumstances, there will be a decision at some point on the matter of costs.

Of course, Mr Findlay was not here when the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Bill went through the Parliament, but it is regrettable that he has not grasped its purpose and the fact that it had the full support of the chamber, including the Labour Party. I am sorry that there seems to be some indication that that support has now gone and that Labour members want another system to be put in place.

When we introduce the amendments through the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill, Labour members will have the opportunity to vote against them or to lodge amendments of their own. However, when the original decision was made, it was absolutely clear that we needed a different process—that is why the whole Parliament agreed to the 2010 legislation. Unfortunately, it has been hard to get the process exactly as we wish it.

The reason why rural schools are different was explained fully when the 2010 legislation went through. It is quite clear that rural schools are in a special category, and I am sorry that the Labour Party seems to think that that is not the case. That is a very odd view, which is not shared across the chamber. [Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Rural schools are in a special situation, as their relationship to the community is particularly strong. When a rural school’s closure is proposed, there are questions about whether many other things in the community will be lost. Therefore, the commission that we set up jointly with COSLA—it was not just the Scottish Government that set up the commission—was supported across the chamber. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, that support appears to have been withdrawn this afternoon, and I regret that.

As I said in my statement, I am open-minded about the next step. The commission says that it might be best to leave the present situation and then to review it. However, there remains—largely from Labour councils, I have to say—criticism about the politicisation of the process. As part of the constructive nature of this Government’s engagement, we are asking, “Can we envision a better way to do this?” We have said that we remain open-minded about the ways to take the matter forward. However, Mr Findlay has already decided that that is not to happen and that there is a political fight to be had. Mr Findlay can create a fight in an empty room, but he is not going to create a fight with me. I will remain open-minded about the matter and will try to create opportunities to ensure that there is an understanding that we want the process to be fair to all parties.

Having been involved in fighting for rural schools for many years, I take the issue immensely seriously. I do not shout out from a sedentary position; I take it seriously, and I have to make difficult decisions. The difficult decisions that the Scottish Government has made are reflected in its record, which shows that it has been able to save some, although not all, schools. It is interesting to note that, from May 1999 to May 2007, the Labour-Liberal Executive did not save a single one of the 45 schools on which decisions had to be made. In those circumstances, my record—the record of this Government—speaks for itself.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

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

I am pleased to hear that emphasis will be placed on the primary importance of educational improvement. The current situation seems open to considerable question because it requires only that the educational benefit should be neutral. I am also pleased to hear that greater clarity of purpose will be demanded. That will be in our minds when we talk about the relevant criteria by which the improvement will be measured. That is helpful and will be warmly welcomed by parents.

I also welcome the proposal to set up an arm’s-length independent adjudicator, who will be responsible for decisions after the ministerial call-in. That will help to put public trust back in the system.

What involvement of parents does the cabinet secretary envisage in the process of deciding which criteria should be used to determine educational improvement? How will he consult on the process of deciding who will be represented on the adjudicator panel?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I thank the member for those questions. It is important to stress that I am not proposing a panel but opening up the debate. I think that a number of options are available. For example, using the Scottish arbitration service is a reasonable and possible way forward. Good, modern arbitration allows the parties to be heard and to be represented, but appeals are possible only on points of law. Communities would be able to take part in that approach in a way that they cannot usually take part in the judicial review process.

There are a number of options. I will discuss them with COSLA, and I will be happy to discuss them with the member and with the Parliament. I am also happy to discuss them with parents and parents’ representatives. It would be helpful if we could get a consensual view across the chamber—excluding Mr Findlay, who obviously does not want to be part of this—about the best way forward.

The member is absolutely right to welcome the issuing of much clearer guidance. The commission is very strong on the need for financial guidance. Those of us who have been through repeated school closure processes know that a great deal of difficulty is caused when figures are bandied about by all sides. Getting the template right will be good and is important. We also need to ensure that there is clarity about what determines educational benefit. We will work with COSLA on that and I am happy to work with parents groups on it, too.

Education Scotland has a role to play. One of the issues on which the commission touches and which we need to bring forward is the continued role of Education Scotland during a closure process. That will help to point out what needs to be done in such circumstances.

I have sat through closure meetings in small communities in which there has been real confusion about what was being said. That should not happen. It was not intended by the legislation, and we need to improve.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

The aim of the 2010 act was that the Scottish Government should act as an impartial referee on the process followed by local councils. However, in the Western Isles judgment, the court ruled that, when the Scottish Government calls in a case, it must also take into account the merits of the case. What scope, if any, does the cabinet secretary see for a return to the position intended under the 2010 act?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

That is an important question. We have to start by making it absolutely clear that local authorities are best placed to take decisions about the provision of education in their areas. We have a distributed system of education delivery in Scotland, but there should be a safeguard in place to review those decisions—one that is accessible to local communities. That is particularly important given the difficult nature of these decisions, and we all know how difficult they are.

The commission has had the opportunity to consider the judgment—indeed, it did not want to report until it had considered it—and it supports the approach of ministers reviewing the merits of a proposal. However, we need to have a system that ensures that we do not interfere in decision making but can review the merits of a case alongside the process issues.

We need to discuss what that means and what it would look like in legislation and in practice with local authorities, parents and others to ensure that we understand with absolute clarity—Liz Smith made the point that clarity is all—what it really means.

Photo of Graeme Pearson Graeme Pearson Labour

In his question, Mr Findlay raised real concerns about the proposals. Those concerns must be dealt with.

Having said that, I welcome the cabinet secretary’s declared intention to clarify the 2010 act and to provide a statutory basis for what is required when reviewing a local authority’s closure proposal.

I also welcome, particularly from a South Scotland perspective, the cabinet secretary’s acknowledgement that schools can be fundamental to the social and economic make-up of rural communities.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Pearson, I need a question, please.

Photo of Graeme Pearson Graeme Pearson Labour

I am coming to the question now, Presiding Officer.

The cabinet secretary acknowledges that it might be best to refer a case to a new, independent decision-making body. When does the ministerial decision-making process enter a final outcome, and how can we hold ministers to account, democratically, for that decision ?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I welcome that question. I am tempted to say to Mr Pearson, “Come on down.” He could clearly make a stronger contribution to education debate than his front-bench team can. I will address his point, because it is serious and good, and must be addressed well.

I propose that ministers will retain the right to call in. The court supported that right. Ministers will be the first line of defence, so to speak. They will take the call-in decision. However, there has been criticism—indeed, there has been strong criticism from Labour councils recently—of the same ministers making the final decision.

I suggest that we can get a better decision-making process. Ministers would remain responsible for the operation of the 2010 act and for general education delivery. However, we already have a split situation: local authorities make the decisions and ministers review them. Mr Findlay appears to criticise that situation, but he does not have a solution to it.

It is entirely appropriate that, if there are grounds for review—that is what the minister decides—the final decision be made in a way that is fair to all sides. The proposal will allow that to happen, but I am very open to discussion about what the process should look like and what should be built into it.

If Mr Pearson wishes to contribute to that discussion, he will be welcome to do so, so that we get it right. The Parliament agreed to the 2010 act unanimously. It is my hope that we might reach the stage at which we can agree on this matter, too. I hope that Mr Pearson will play his role in that regard.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am afraid that I need quicker questions and answers if we are to get everyone in.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s statement, especially in relation to the commission’s recommendations about financial arguments being based on clear and accurate data. Having just gone through school closures in my region, I know how important it is to parents that they have transparent financial information when a school closure is considered.

Can the cabinet secretary confirm that recommendations 21 and 22 are being accepted? Does he agree with the commission chairman, Sheriff David Sutherland, that the more information we give parents, the more balanced, reasonable and open the discussion that can take place will be?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

To accept the Presiding Officer’s strictures, I agree with Sheriff David Sutherland on the matter, and I am accepting those recommendations. That is the right thing to do.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement, some of which I read in The Herald this morning.

As the parent of a child who attends a school that was recently identified for closure, I know only too well the impact that the threat of closure can have on pupils, parents, staff and the wider community. I think that the legislation that we passed was absolutely right in insisting that the closure of a school must be the last option.

However, given what the cabinet secretary has said about the need for a clear “financial template”, does he believe that his previous statements that financial considerations had no place in decisions about school closures were misleading? Does he not accept that, if ministers are still responsible for calling in decisions, the independent referral mechanism will not depoliticise the process and is likely to lead to a higher number of call-ins, with ministers being spared the uncomfortable task of final determination?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I disagree with that, and I am sorry that Mr McArthur takes that point of view.

It is clear that we need to clarify the role of financial decision making in the process. That is one of the issues that the commission looked at and came up with recommendations on. It would have been positive if Mr McArthur had welcomed those recommendations, because they have been accepted. They will clarify the situation, and clarity is necessary. In previous decision making, financial considerations were excluded. The commission is saying that such considerations need to be taken into account, but that the information needs to be presented properly. That is what will happen.

I am surprised by the attitude that the Liberal Democrats seem to be taking on the mechanism, because it provides an opportunity to depoliticise the situation and to have a better—[Interruption.] Mr Scott shouts out. He is constantly arguing that things should be depoliticised. Most recently, he argued that the Royal Highland Show should be depoliticised, although Mr Lyon is politicising it. When I provide an opportunity to depoliticise something, he shouts out. The inconsistency of the Liberal Democrats is absolutely stunning. The voters cannot understand what they do, which is why they do not vote for them.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party

As someone who attended a commission session at Gairloch high school, I very much welcome the commission’s report.

Will the cabinet secretary comment further on the need for improved staffing ratios in small rural primary and secondary schools in my constituency and many others, so that threats of premature closure or school mergers can be avoided, wherever possible?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am keen to ensure that the stability in teacher numbers that this Government has achieved, following the failure of the previous Government, is maintained. We must ensure that teacher employment is consistent throughout Scotland. For example, under the teacher induction scheme, a financial incentive is available to probationer teachers who waive their right to specify in which authority area they would like to work during their probationary year. That allows them to be placed in authorities in rural areas where probationer teachers are needed but might not otherwise go.

We have also been looking at the issue of dual qualification as a concern for education authorities. We are working with the General Teaching Council for Scotland to explore how the issue can be taken forward.

It is extremely important that we can provide a good supply of properly trained teachers to every school in Scotland. There are great attractions to teaching in rural schools, which present a real opportunity for ambitious teachers. We should send out that message loud and clear.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

Following the publication of the commission’s report in April, the Scottish rural schools network said that it seemed likely that the end of the moratorium would mean that a considerable number of closure proposals would come forward in the succeeding months. Given the cabinet secretary’s comments on the shared desire of the Government and local authorities to improve the quality of closure proposals, what assurances can he give parents and communities that any proposed changes, including the setting up of an independent decision-making body, will meet the decision timescales that some rural communities might face?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I addressed that in my statement. I am happy to confirm that we want to get the matter concluded as soon as possible. We have identified a legislative route for doing that. We expect all councils to be mindful of the points that I have made this afternoon and the discussions that are going on with COSLA. There is legislation in place, but I expect the highest-quality practice to take place, too. We will want to ensure that, when councils consider closure proposals, they are mindful of the need to do the type of things that are being talked about, not just by me but in what is an extremely comprehensive report, which they will all have read. I am confident that councils that are in that position will want to produce robust and clear proposals that meet all the tests that I have set.

I must point out that we accept the argument made by the members of the rural schools network during the commission’s inquiry on the importance of educational benefit remaining at the heart of what we are doing. I hope that they are pleased about that. I also hope that they are reassured by the statement.

Photo of Dave Thompson Dave Thompson Scottish National Party

Will the cabinet secretary elaborate on his view that educational benefit statements should remain a critical part of any school closure proposal? When will the new guidance be available?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I have indicated that we want that guidance as quickly as possible. We will consult intensively with COSLA and others over the summer to ensure that we bring it forward.

I have made it clear that the educational bar that the Parliament set unanimously is an important one. It tells us that everything that we do in education must have an improvement motive and must be judged by the improvements that we bring. The educational benefit statement, which is vital, is being retained in that way. That will be positive for education not only in rural Scotland, but in urban Scotland; it is the right thing to do. Providing that we get consensus in the chamber—I am hopeful, but one never knows—we will be able to get the matter through quickly.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

The cabinet secretary makes the welcome comment that, unlike the situation with a judicial review, the independent adjudicator will be easily accessible to the communities affected by the proposal. That will be welcomed in communities in Argyll and Bute, the Western Isles and other parts of the Highlands and Islands. How will communities be able to engage with the adjudicator?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I have an open mind about what that will look like. I keep stressing that point, because we will base the final decision on accessibility, among other factors.

An arbitration process would allow representations to be made—that is why it is a strong contender. However, other processes could be constructed that would allow representations to be heard.

It is important that such a process happens. I am keen to ensure that rural communities in Argyll and Bute and throughout Scotland are happy with the process, and accessibility is one factor that we will bear in mind.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

The cabinet secretary will be aware that rural regeneration is highlighted as a key issue by the commission. Sheriff Sutherland stated:

“Sustainable rural communities depend on a range of services including schools, but also jobs and housing”.

Will the cabinet secretary outline what steps are being considered to progress the report in the wider context of sustainable and vibrant rural communities?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

There are very good recommendations in the report that make the links that many of us have made for a long time around the presence of rural schools in communities, including shared services, the imaginative use of buildings, and how the potential closure of a rural school is treated not only as an educational matter, but as economic and social matters. Those are all questions of good practice that we are keen to encourage, and the recommendations will help local authorities to take them forward.