The Scottish Government’s plans to modernise the consultation process on school closures have been given support by the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee in a report published today.
The recommendation is part of the committee’s Stage 1 Report on the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Bill. The bill sets out a requirement for councils to publish their proposals and an educational benefits statement. It also sets out specified periods of consultation and the obligation to hold a public meeting and inform HMIE.
Though broadly supportive of the bill’s proposals, the committee wants clarification in certain areas. The bill specifies that when councils want to close a rural school, special factors such as impact on the local community, pupil and staff travelling arrangements and viable alternatives to closure should all be considered. The committee believes these additional factors could apply to all schools and asks the Scottish Government to reflect on the evidence.
The committee also wants clarification on the definition of the phrase “material consideration”. The term appears in light of a ministerial right to call-in any school closure proposal if it is believed a council has failed to follow procedures or to take a “material consideration” into account.
Committee Convener Karen Whitefield MSP said: “We recognise that decisions about school closures are never easy and it is vital that the decision-making process is transparent and easy to understand for everyone involved. We therefore agree that these proposed consultation measures would improve and bring consistency to the process across local authorities.
"However, we have heard convincing arguments that the special factors for rural-schools closures should be applied to all schools and we have recommended the Scottish Government reflect on this. We would also like clarification on what the Government regard as ‘material consideration’ to justify a call-in by ministers.”
The Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Bill was introduced in the Scottish Parliament on 2 March 2009 by Fiona Hyslop MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning.