Rural Schools (Viability)

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 15 June 2023.

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Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

3. To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on the future and viability of rural schools. (S6F-02250)

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

Rural schools play an important part in our communities. Like many western European countries, in particular, Scotland is facing a set of long-term population challenges, which are particularly acute in some remote, rural and island communities. That is why, in 2021, the Scottish Government published Scotland’s first population strategy.

In Scotland, there is a presumption against the closure of rural schools. When local authorities plan to close rural schools, they are required to undertake a thorough and lengthy consultation process. That includes demonstrating the educational benefit of a closure, considering the impact of a closure on the local community and school travel arrangements and consulting the community on alternatives to closure. The process ensures that the impact of any decision is properly considered and options are explored. Of course, no school closure decision is ever, or should ever be, taken lightly.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

Last weekend,

The Herald revealed that 40 mainly rural schools have been closed or mothballed in recent years. Colleagues across all parties in the Parliament have described that number as alarming and as evidence of the blatant disregard that this Scottish National Party Government has for the rural and remote areas of Scotland. Families with young children in rural Scotland are being left high and dry by the SNP’s neglect, and the SNP Government still has no plan for any of this.

Now there are 15 more schools at risk of closure, including Blackness school, in my constituency. Will the First Minister, like his predecessor, turn his back on rural Scotland, or will he take this opportunity to send a strong message of support for our rural schools?

The First Minister:

I do not agree at all with Stephen Kerr’s characterisation of the situation. Let me take the issues in turn. First, these are decisions for local authorities to take. It is usually the Conservatives who are the first to complain if they perceive or believe that the Scottish Government is in any way interfering in local decision making.

Let us allow and empower our local authorities to make decisions, in consultation with local communities, that they believe are right for them.

It is the SNP that brought in additional protections for rural schools. Those include the requirement that a local authority must clearly demonstrate that it has considered alternatives to closure, and there must be assessments of the likely impact on the community and the impact on school travel arrangements for local pupils. A local authority must set out the educational benefits of a closure. If the proposal to close a school is rejected, the local authority cannot repeat the process for another five years. The SNP brought in a whole host of protections.

Depopulation is a serious issue, which is why we are taking a range of actions to address the issue. As I said, in 2021, we published Scotland’s first population strategy, and the delivery of the strategy is overseen by a ministerial population task force.

However, what has not helped the depopulation situation in remote, rural and island communities is the hard Brexit that has been imposed on Scotland against our will. [



The Presiding Officer:

Thank you, members.

The First Minister:

The hard Brexit that has been imposed by Stephen Kerr and his colleagues has not helped with European migration to Scotland. If only Scotland had the powers to rejoin the European Union, perhaps we could reverse depopulation for good.

Photo of Karen Adam Karen Adam Scottish National Party

Many rural communities are facing complex and long-term population challenges. Schools need pupils in order to be viable, and school rolls rely on communities retaining or attracting families into their area. Many rural communities are dealing with a legacy of out-migration and depopulation, much of which predates the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. Will the First Minister set out what benefits the Scottish Government’s rural visa pilot proposals could offer to schools in our rural communities?

The First Minister:

I have to say that it is quite depressing to listen to the United Kingdom Conservative Party and, I am afraid, the UK Labour Party compete in a race to the bottom when it comes to migration. I state unequivocally that immigration to this country has been good for Scotland, for years and decades. We welcome migrants to Scotland.

Our rural visa pilot proposal, which was described by the UK Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee as

“sensible and clear in both scale and deliverability”,

would enable rural and remote communities to attract migrants in line with their very distinct local needs, which would include bringing family members with them. That would offer an opportunity to bolster school communities in pilot areas. Pilot areas would also be enabled to address discrete local public sector workforce needs—for example, around teachers—and further support communities to flourish.

We continue to urge the UK Government in the strongest possible terms to engage with us and to deliver the pilot scheme or, even better, to give us the powers over immigration so that we can do it ourselves.