Campaigners hit out at ‘shoddy’ school report

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PARENTS, staff and the many supporters fighting to save North Bute Primary from closure are upbeat about the school’s chances of survival this week as they await news of the next step in Argyll and Bute Council’s school estate review.

And they have resisted the temptation to be angered by a ‘pre-consultation’ meeting held to gauge the impact on the community should the school be closed – or by a document produced at that meeting which they say was poor, shoddy and partial at best.

The council is due to meet on April 19 to consider which closure proposals – if any – should go forward to a formal public consultation.

But the papers for that meeting must be published seven days in advance, which means those battling to keep North Bute – and nine other schools still under threat – should find out the plans of senior officers this coming Tuesday, April 12.

North Bute’s supporters, however, remain optimistic after a ‘pre-consultation’ meeting in Port Bannatyne this week – even though several of those attending expressed doubts about how it was conducted.

At that meeting council official Matthew Boyle presented a report outlining why the authority still believes North Bute should be closed – though he stated his role was simply to hear feedback, and declined to answer questions from the school’s supporters, including QC and North Bute resident John McGhee, who led the campaigners’ case.

Sophie Reid, who chairs North Bute Primary’s parent council, told The Buteman: “The meeting was very positive from our point of view – we had a lot of questions which Mr Boyle couldn’t answer.

“He did listen to everyone’s opinions, but he couldn’t give any information about what he had written, while we had a valid answer to everything brought up in his report.”

Mrs Reid’s parent council colleague, Stuart Scott, who also attended last Wednesday’s meeting, told us: “There was a lot of powerful emotion from people who know the devastating effect closing the school would have on the community.

“But the document the council produced was poor. It was shoddy, it was partial and it raised issues which, on the night, there was an inability or a refusal to discuss.

“Without being too unkind to the individuals involved, the way they wanted to approach things was inappropriate to the issue, and people were definitely somewhat bewildered by the process.

“However, we feel the case for the retention of the school just gets stronger and stronger. We are determined that our case will be presented in as effective a way as we possibly can.

“We believe we have a coherent, viable case for retaining the school which achieves the council’s objectives as well as our own.”

Bute SNP councillor Isobel Strong said she believed the document presented by Mr Boyle contained “lots of educational statements which were presented as facts but were really only opinions”, and added that she was particularly concerned at the view that North Bute is too small to effectively deliver the Curriculum for Excellence.

On the community impact of the school’s closure, she added: “There can be no positive impact if a school is closed. All the local businesses in Port Bannatyne would suffer as pupils would be away all day.

“People also thought that young people being around the village was good for the other age groups as well. The signs of recovery in what is a fragile economy would be choked off if the school was closed.”

Meanwhile, members of the council’s SNP opposition group have demanded an independent review of the evidence used to back the council’s revised closure proposals.

Their call follows an accusation by the Scottish Rural Schools Network that the authority’s director of community services, Cleland Sneddon, gave incomplete or inaccurate information to senior councillors in slides he used at a presentation on the subject on February 17.

SRSN chairman Sandy Longmuir said comparisons made by Mr Sneddon between North Bute and other schools with similar capacities only presented a partial or out-of-date picture of the true situation.

Mr Longmuir has also made public correspondence with the General Register of Scotland which, he says, casts doubt on Argyll and Bute’s assertion that school rolls in many areas are expected to fall in the next few years.

The SNP group leader, Bute councillor Robert Macintyre, said: “The director’s evidence at the seminar on February 17 would have played a crucial role in the education spokesperson’s criteria when selecting the 12 schools presently being put forward for possible consultation.

“Therefore, the administration of Argyll and Bute Council should immediately cease the consultation process which has yet again been shown to be flawed.”

A council spokesperson said the authority was “considering a request to conduct an independent investigation”, but added: “The presentation given to members on February 17 contained 31 slides, which were designed as visual aids for the audience and as a prompts for the person presenting.

“The slides were intended to be presented by a speaker, not read  as a stand-alone document. The presentation given to elected members contained much more detail than is shown on the paper copy.

“SRSN have interpreted information from a set of slides they did not see presented and have unfortunately taken some of the contents out of context.

“Councillors will be asked to consider the school estate review again at a special meeting on April 19. They will have the opportunity to ask questions about the information they have received to date at that meeting.”