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 this Parliament.
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 and staff.
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 are:
- Viable alternatives to closure must be considered
- The likely effects of closure on the community as a whole must be considered
- Any changed travelling arrangements for children must be considered
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 distance.
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 correctly.
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 April 5, 2010), Councils have proposed 35 school closures. This reflects, to some extent, the financial pressures that Councils are currently under.
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 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 consideration by me. There are also another five closure proposals going through the process which will be presented for my consideration shortly.
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 was envisaged.
The consultation process is not being followed in more cases than we expected.
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
- 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 shortly.
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 positions.
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.