THE controversy over Argyll and Bute Council’s school closure programme rumbles on. with the news this week that the Argyll Rural Schools Network (ARSN) has lodged a formal complaint about the authority’s new education spokesperson, Councillor Ellen Morton, having taken personal responsibility for identifying the 12 schools on the ‘pre-consultation’ list.
A spokesperson for ARSN said Cllr Morton had breached the councillors’ code of conduct by going beyond the stated councillor’s role to “determine policy and to participate in decisions on matters placed before you, not to engage in direct operational management of the council’s services”.
The spokesperson for ARSN said: “It is quite apparent that the education spokesperson has not applied a fair and transparent evaluation process.
“That she has approached this exercise in an entirely subjective manner, and sidelined council officer involvement, leaves it wide open to accusations of political bias.
“This is why we have lodged a formal complaint and require the decision reached on March 3 declared invalid.”
The complaint, made to the council’s monitoring officer, also says that the criteria and evaluation process applied by Cllr Morton were unknown to councillors attending and voting at the March 3 meeting.
Campaigners against the closure plans have not been mollified by a statement from Cllr Morton, issued shortly after last week’s issue of The Buteman went to press, attempting to clarify the criteria she used in deciding which schools should be chosen for pre-consultation.
“The purpose of the review is to deliver a more efficient and sustainable operation of the school estate,” she said.
“This means we have to maximise the proportion of resources that are available for the direct delivery of education services and minimise the risk of adverse impacts on education outcomes
“Deciding which schools could potentially be considered for pre consultation is not as simple as applying a set of standard criteria to each school and then performing a calculation to churn out a list of which schools we should consider and which we shouldn’t.
“Each school must be considered individually. Some criteria will have a much greater impact on some schools than others.
“That’s why I’ve visited around three quarters of our primary schools and why I want to carry out the pre-consultation – so we can learn more about the individual characteristics of each school and the educational impact it has before we produce further proposals.”
The revised proposals have been roundly criticised by Cllr Morton’s political opponents in Labour and the SNP - with the latter’s Argyll and Bute election candidate, Michael Russell, describing her statement as “mince”.
Mr Russell also accused the council’s ruling administration of independent, Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors of recycling arguments used to support proposed school closures more than a decade ago.
“It appears she is admitting producing a personal hit list of local schools which is utterly subjective and lacks considered input from experts,” Mr Russell said.
“However of greater concern is the recycling of old excuses for closures which have long since proved to be discredited.
“For example, occupancy levels as estimated by Argyll & Bute Council are vastly out of line with estimates of similar sized schools in other areas of Scotland - a matter confirmed by the Scottish Rural School Network.
“Consequently to use it as an argument is at best daft, and at worst deceitful.
“In addition the different treatment needed to consider occupancy in rural areas was accepted more than a decade ago but is still being willfully ignored by the present administration in Argyll and Bute.”
Labour’s Argyll and Bute candidate Mick Rice said he also believed the criteria used by Cllr Morton were illegal.
“The fact that the education spokesperson has issued a press release containing “criteria” for the choice of schools six days after the council decision, and that these “criteria” were not explicitly part of the decision process, is, in my view, sufficient to invalidate the whole process at the outset,” Mr Rice said in a statement.
“Even if this is not held, I also consider that the “criteria” used by the education spokesperson are illegal.
“The decision of any public body must be decided on the basis of objective analysis and not on the whim, or subjective viewpoint, of any individual.
“The correct process is precisely opposite to that adopted by the council – it does require a list to be ‘churned out’ by the application of appropriate criteria specified in the Act, and must include educational benefit for the children affected by the proposal.
“On a prima facie basis it appears to me that an application for judicial review to stop the process – thereby forcing the council to start afresh - would be successful.”