Council chiefs: small is not beautiful

In schoolyards across Scotland, a battle is raging. On one side are councillors who say that spending the education budget sensibly means underused primaries have to close. On the other are banner-waving families - dubbed Kimbies (Keep It In My Backyard) - who say their local schools form the heart of their communities.

For a while last year, the battle seemed to be going the councils’ way with the closure of 31 primary schools in Scotland.

Around 50 more are under threat. In some recent cases, however, the local authorities have had to back down. Morayshire recently stepped away from a report recommending the closure of 21 rural schools including Rothiemay where the Tory peer Lord Irvine Laidlaw started his education. He offered to back a plan to take the council to court.

Now, the campaigners are taking their fight to a new battleground. Despite winning a stay of execution, the Moray parents are going to the Scottish Parliament to ask for a “presumption against closure”, similar to the protection English schools have been awarded. This would make it harder to close a school, forcing councils to consider other ways to keep a school open before taking the case to an independent panel. In England under this ruling, the annual number of school closures has fallen from an average of 30 to three.

The turning tide has councils worried.

Last year, Edinburgh Councils’ ruling Labour group suffered its first defeat for more than a decade when three Labour members defied the whip and abstained on a vote over closing the city’s Lismore Primary. The school won a stay of execution, the councillors were disciplined and had the whip withdrawn, and the Labour group leaders said the resultant cost jeopardised a private finance initiative (PFI) contract to renovate eight other primaries.

Ewan Aitken, children and families leader of Edinburgh Council, is opposed to a presumption against closure. “We have 10,000 more primary school spaces than we need, ” he says. “Clearly we need to do something about that. But it is not just about numbers and statistics; it is also about how people feel about their local schools. We must get better at the conversation we need to have with the local community. We need to involve the community early on and say to people: ‘Look here is the problem, how can we best solve it?'” Aitken believes that if parents got their way, many rundown schools would continue to operate with an ever-dwindling school roll. “The council does need to be able to make changes, ” he says.
“The presumption against closure seems to move the decision from elected representatives to unelected representatives.”

Edinburgh councillor Phil Attridge believes closures should be looked at on a case-by-case basis, weighing educational needs against the needs of the community.

“Keeping open two or three crumbling schools that are close together and underoccupied is just a waste of money and it could damage the life chances of the children, ” he says.

“I’m old-fashioned because I don’t like PFI. But we have a new school in Firhill and when you see the computer suites and the gyms you do think ‘wow, that is amazing’ and you see the point of a new school.

I just don’t like to feel that the private sector is walking away rubbing its hands.”

Attridge is concerned that developers may attempt to use a new school contract to get in to high-value land or the green belt. “You find that the green area round the old school disappears; the PFI involves building flats or selling it off, ” he says.

Roy Jobson, education director in Edinburgh, says closing schools is never easy but that they have to work to a target school occupancy rate of 60-per cent set by Audit Scotland. He says the maintenance, heating and staffing bills for many halfempty schools swallow up large sums of cash that could be better spent on other things.

“The council has an obligation to make the best use of council resources and to give the best value for money, ” he says. “On the one hand parents have the expectation that their school will remain open, but on the other hand they have the expectation that it will have good facilities, arts and music teaching, out-of-school activities, a football team and so on. It is easier to provide all that if you have fuller schools.”

Not every community, however, is enthusiastic about a new school, particularly if it means changing the locale.

Newlands Primary in Romanno Bridge in the Scottish Borders is housed in a Victorian building in a rural setting which failed a Scottish Executive MOT recently, due to lack of modern facilities. The local community however is bitterly opposed to its closure and to the 58 pupils travelling further to a new school. They have taken on the challenge of raising GBP850,000 in three years to renovate the old building.

Midlothian Against School Closures is also battling a plan to replace four old rural primaries with two new-build ones.

Having won a stay of execution until 2007, campaigners are continuing, saying that their children’s right to a rural education in small local schools is being taken away.

And it is not only rural areas where parents are fighting back. Last year Glasgow City Council backed down in the face of a proposed sit-in and allowed Castlemilk and St Margaret Mary primaries in the city to remain open despite threats of closure. That said, Glasgow has met little
opposition to its school reorganisation, closing more than 25 schools and building 18 new campuses since 2001, with several more slated for closure.

In St Andrews, a plan to merge three inner-city primaries with less than 60-per cent capacity and move the local Roman Catholic primary, which is at 95-per cent capacity, into the newly vacated buildings, is encountering stiff opposition.

Christine Rawlinson, board chair of Langlands, one of the schools earmarked for merger, says parents are very angry.

“The school is a very important part of the local identity, ” she says.”It is accessible on foot and the other one is a mile further away. We don’t want to move. We think their figures are wrong as there is a lot of development in St Andrews.”

Meanwhile, the board of Greyfriars RC school say they are also happy with their 120-year-old premises, which they see as a classic example of a Victorian school building. Board chair Henry Paul says:

“The new PFI schools have a life expectancy of about 25 years. This was built to last.”

Rural school campaigner Lara Bestwick has two children, the elder of whom is at Rothiemay. “We were very pleased when they changed their mind about closing Rothiemay, ” she says. “But we are going on fighting to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Bestwick and other parents believe the change to a presumption against closure similar to England’s would be a positive move. “Presumption against closure doesn’t mean that a school can never be closed, ” says Bestwick. “But it means the council first has to look at ways of keeping it open, perhaps by opening it up and offering more facilities to the community.

“For us, in a village, it may sound like a cliche but closing the school really would rip the heart out of the community. There is a shop by the primary school that people use when they pick up their kids. If they closed the school, the business would be threatened.”

Bestwick refutes the council’s argument that a big new school would provide a better education. “There is no evidence that the children’s education is suffering, ” she says. “Children in small rural schools do at least as well as the average.”

The Scottish Herald
6th September 2005