CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
I would like to 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.
There are, in my experience, few issues which have united all sides of
However, the Schools (Scotland) (Consultation) Bill, which the
Parliament agreed to unanimously in November 2009 did so.
Before this Parliament was established there were significant concerns
expressed from many quarters, over many years, about the procedures
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 they served;
this resulted in much worry, anger and resentment for pupils, parents
At the outset, Presiding Officer, let me make it clear that sometimes
schools have to close. Communities change, populations move, sometimes
buildings become unsuitable. But 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 Committee looked into
the issue of school closures following consideration of a petition. One
of the outcomes was an invitation to COSLA to draw up new rules about
the school closures process. Unfortunately, this did not take place
and, as a consequence, little changed.
Schools continued to close, in ways which appeared to be based on little
joined up thinking regarding the impact closure would have on the wider
community and its economic and social future.
In 2007, in an attempt to address this, Murdo Fraser introduced his
private members Bill. While this was intended to relate to all school
closures, it nevertheless had a particular focus and concern about rural
schools and the importance of schools to the wider rural community.
This evolved into the "Safeguarding Our Rural Schools" consultation,
from which emerged our Bill.
The delivery of education in rural communities is about much more than
just a building. A school can, 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 which
has existed in England for some time.
The legislation was intended to make the proposed closure of any school,
an open, transparent and fair one.
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 they serve - and this was
particularly important for rural areas.
So, we put in place a number of special provisions for such areas. In
the case of proposals to close a rural school, there are three factors
to which the council must have regard before moving to consult - these
* Viable alternatives to closure must be considered;
* The likely effects of closure on the community as a
whole must be considered; and
* Any changed travelling arrangements for children must be
The result of this is to ensure that a decision to close a rural school
must be regarded as a decision of last resort.
In addition, prior to the Bill, the involvement of Ministers in a
closure decision had been mainly related to issues around occupancy and
The new Bill established a more formal role by means of a safeguard
whereby Ministers would be able to call in those decisions in which they
perceived serious flaws in the consultation or decision making process.
That call-in can also be triggered by community or parental request, but
such requests have to outline a flaw in process.
The key word here is process - the Bill was and is not about prejudging
or second guessing a local authority's decision but ensuring that the
process, as enshrined by statute, had been carried through properly and
At the time of the Bill's passage in November 2009, most envisaged that
no more than a handful of cases would be called in. The Government had
confidence in a process the whole Chamber had endorsed.
However, it is clear to me now that for all our good work, there have
been widely differing interpretations of the Act by local authorities,
communities and central government. These differing interpretations are
hindering the clear policy intention of the Bill. 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. This reflects,
to some extent, the financial pressures that Councils are currently
However, the Bill made clear that the basis for closure decisions and
must be educational benefit. Closures driven by finance alone are not
permitted, yet councils still buttress their closure decisions with
Of that 35, I have found it necessary to call in 17. So far, 4 have
been given unconditional consent to close, 4 have been allowed to close
subject to conditions and 4 have been refused - the remaining 5 are
still under consideration by me. There are also another 5 closure
proposals going through the process which will be presented for my
For all involved, this is proving to be an unsatisfactory process. We
all felt at the time 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 coming forward than
The consultation process is not being followed in more cases than we
During the election, we made clear in our manifesto an intention to
strengthen the 2010 Act to ensure that consultation is genuine and based
on accurate information.
In addition, we also wanted to reinforce the existing presumption
against closure and find a revised means of supporting the delivery of
education in rural areas.
So, how should this be done?
Hopefully with thought, with care and with 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.
But Presiding Officer, this cannot be delivered against a backdrop of
conflict, confusion and discontent.
It is for all these reasons that last week I announced the setting up of
a Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education. It will be tasked
with, among other things:
* 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 importantly, it will have licence to look ahead radically and
boldly. I will be expecting it to come forward with recommendations at
the start of next year.
I will announce the membership of the Commission and its full remit
Clearly, input from a wide range of organisations and individuals will
be sought to help the Commission undertake its work. COSLA and ADES
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. This will create the space necessary to allow a comprehensive
and fair assessment of the present school closures process and allow
clear thinking on how it can be improved.
This moratorium will run for a year. I believe 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 - so have parents, so have Members on all
sides of this Parliament. Therefore, I expect and hope for a positive
response from councils, from parents and from Members of this Parliament
to my proposals for a moratorium. I am pleased to say that a number of
councils have already indicated their support.
It is my aim that we work together across the various interests in order
to find a consensus and solve these problems which affect many parts of
Scotland. There is no future in simply digging-in to entrenched
Presiding Officer, I think we would all want to ensure that what
Parliament had in its mind when it agreed the Schools (Consultation)
(Scotland) Act 2010 can finally be applied in an effective and proper
way 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.
Presiding Officer, I believe that our rural communities are the fresh
air that energise much of Scottish society. I am very aware that the
closure of a rural school can unbalance and sometimes destroy a rural
community for ever.
This chamber has already agreed that action is needed to prevent that.
My new proposals re-enforce that agreement.