Parent council’s views published on rural education

THE parent council at North Bute Primary in Port Bannatyne has sent The Buteman a copy of its response to the call for written evidence by the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education set up by the Scottish Government.

The parent council’s views are published in full below; the Commission will visit Argyll and Bute on Tuesday, March 6 to hear the views of local people on the delivery of education in rural areas.

Q1c - Curriculum for Excellence and particular challenges:

The Curriculum for Excellence is “defined as all the experiences that are planned for learners wherever they are being educated. It can take account of all the experiences that learners can have through learning outwith school and in activity that would previously have been thought of as extra-curricular.” (Scottish Government 2010b).

Clearly there is a broad scope for implementation of this curriculum, and individual schools may play to their strengths. Rural schools have many such strengths, such as close links within the immediate community, and flexibility in implementation.

Rural schools are invariably small schools. There are plenty of examples of small rural schools that have been adjudged to be Excellent in their delivery of the Curriculum for Excellence since the current format of HMIE inspections began: for example, Uyeasound Primary, Arrochar Primary.

Rural schools invariably contain composite class structures. Group learning within composite classes is likely to involve pupils from different year groups working together towards a common goal.

The benefits already associated with composite classes – co-operative learning and pro-social behaviours nurturing environment, responsibility to the group, awareness of ability of others, confidence in this mixed environment– all easily integrate with the aspirations of the Curriculum for Excellence. The following reference (Review of Class Size Control Mechanisms: Report of the Working Group, August/September 2009) highlights the suitability of composite classes for the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence:

“Curriculum for Excellence is likely to have a significant impact on the organisation of learning. There are indications that it will strengthen the tendency to establish mixed age classes that has followed from the relaxation of age and stage restrictions. There will be issues as to whether or not such classes should be considered to be composite classes.”

Q1d

The only challenge experienced through our local school has been the failure of the local authority to acknowledge the suitability and flexibility of small rural schools in implementing the Curriculum for Excellence. The school staff are readily applying the ethos of this curriculum in numerous ways, and the pupils are enjoying it; the parents are happy with what they’ve seen. And yet our local authority recently attempted to close the school by erroneously claiming, amongst other things, that our school was not suitable for this curriculum. Argyll and Bute Council appear incapable of seeing the obvious reality: the small rural schools are perfect for the Curriculum for Excellence.

A wider challenge facing some rural schools is an apparent negative bias from their local authorities, representing a failure to recognise the strengths of these schools, and instead adopting a view that the holy grail in education in Argyll and Bute is new builds with astroturf pitches.

Q2 - rural schools provide the following educational benefits:

Closer links within the community associated with rural schools, which is a win-win situation for all involved.

Small class sizes typical of rural schools are associated with superior pupil-teacher interaction and `teaching time on subject’, which translate into improved quality of teaching. In contrast large class sizes are linked with discipline problems and less personal styles of teaching, which in turn affect the quality of teaching provided.

The composite class format commonly found in small rural schools afford teachers greater opportunity to get to know their individual pupils’ educational needs in a small class setting, which impact favourably on the quality of teaching provided.

Quality of teaching in rural schools compares favourably with that in larger schools, with proportionally more good teachers in small schools (see Small Schools: How Well Are They Doing, Ofsted Report).

Q3 - Any particular disadvantages associated with rural schools for their pupils

Rural schools are different from urban schools, that is the key point that should be reflected upon. Rural schools, in our experience, integrate very well within their local community, and adapt to the facilities available.

Q4 - Getting It Right For Every Child:

For our school there are no challenges in applying the Getting It Right approach (we have looked into this issue). Services are available equally across all local primary and secondary schools. In fact, our opinion is that rural schools are arguably a better environment for implementing this approach: teachers tend to know their pupils and their circumstances better than in urban environments. The close community links associated with rural schools allow for better and more direct communication between all parties involved.

Our view is that it is not appropriate to make generalisations across settings and contexts, on issues such as `Getting it Right’: there is considerable heterogeneity between schools and communities, whether rural and urban, individual professions involved and abilities of these professionals etc. Any failures in ‘Getting it Right’ are likely to be due to a host of interconnected factors: it is likely to be over-simplistic to try and single out rural v urban as any root cause. A proper statistical analysis would be required to make any such claim.

Q5 - viability and sustainability of rural education

Sustainability of rural schools seems quite straightforward: the majority of rural schools are small, and as such are in receipt of funding from the Grant Aided Expenditure (GAE) for small rural schools. It follows that the cost per pupil to a given local authority is generally lower for the archetypal small rural school than it is for an urban school, when this GAE government funding is taken into consideration. See North Bute Primary as a case in point.

Furthermore under-occupied school buildings are not the drain on resource some might have us believe, since empty classrooms where they exist are just that, but with minimal cost associated with them (for elaboration of this issue see following report by Prof. Neil Kay, 2005: The Accounts Commission and School Closures. Draft)

Attracting and retaining staff: this again does not appear to be a problem. Mr Drever, President of Educational Institute of Scotland, expressed the following views, when attending Scottish Parliament Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee meeting (Scottish Government 2009): “Teachers in different types of school find teaching equally rewarding, but for different reasons. The rewards and challenges of working in a very small school differ from those in larger schools. In the broadest sense, the resources that are required of teachers are different. Teaching in small schools is challenging but rewarding. It is interesting that many more applications are often made for posts in small rural schools than for posts in schools in towns and cities. That might reflect an attraction of small rural schools, which are challenging but rewarding to teach in.”

Large urban schools in contrast are replete with stresses and strains within the staff structure, and staff sickness due to stress is a major problem. In contrast rural schools are relatively a much more healthy environment to work in.

School Buildings: regular maintenance of school buildings should be sufficient. Problems may arise if a local authority fails to live up to their responsibilities in this. Also it is our experience, and one which we understand is common across rural communities, that good will on the part of local businesses (council-approved) towards maintaining a school building is a viable option. This is potentially a model for the future: the school is integral to the local community and the local community take some responsibility for its maintenance and appearance. Our local school recently received numerous offers of upgrading from local businesses, either free of charge or at a much reduced rate, on the strengths of personal links these businesses had with our school.

Remote learning: for some schools with very low rolls this may be relevant. In the case of North Bute Primary, which is a large small school, this is not relevant.

Q6 - rural classification

The classification of schools as rural or otherwise is clearly a technical and complicated issue. We are firmly of the opinion that a classification could be implemented on a school-by-school basis, and that special cases should apply. For example, we are an island community; therefore all schools on Bute should be classed as rural.

It is our understanding that the Schools Consultation Act was drawn up to give some protection to rural schools against intentions at closure on the part of some local authorities where due consideration to all the aspects and consequences had not been made. It is our view that any attempts to reclassification of schools by this Commission represent another approach at undermining rural schools and the communities they serve. It is correct that this Commission has jurisdiction to examine this issue? – we think it should not.

Q7b - Educational benefit should be primary consideration in any significant change to a school

Education benefit certainly should be a major concern, though not the only concern clearly. Local authorities are public officials and must represent the interests of the communities they serve. Closing schools and obliging families to re-locate their children’s education without being able to guarantee a schooling of at least a similar standard to the one they have been removed from, is unfair and unacceptable.

Make no mistake: we our school was recently under threat of closure, the potential impact on the community was very real, in terms of costs and jobs and livelihoods. On top of this was the concern that the alternative education proposed would be on the whole of a reduced quality. Any local authority should have a rock-solid water-tight case for closure to justify this impact.

If a local authority argues for a school closure on financial grounds only, then this same local authority should be obliged to make available to scrutiny how it manages its wider finances, and be prepared to accept recommendations from the public on how savings may be better made. One issue that surfaced repeatedly during Argyll and Bute Council’s recent proposed program of school closures was the appointment of five very handsomely paid Quality Improvement Officers at this same time. The impression created was that Argyll and Bute Council had created these very expensive posts at the same time as they were proposing closures and the decimation of many communities, and that these new officials appeared to be nothing more than `box-tickers’. This should have been open to scrutiny.

Q8a – viable alternatives

North Bute Primary school was recently under threat of closure; we felt we were the victim of a very poorly informed local authority campaign, with numerous fundamental flaws in the proposal for closure: it would have cost the local authority a lot of money, annually, to close our school, through the loss of a GAE small schools grant. And yet it appeared as if numerous attempts were made by Argyll and Bute Council to get the figures to read differently.

There were suggestions and subsequently evidence that high-ranking officials within this Council deliberately massaged and misquoted information around school occupancy rates, to support their campaign, and so on. This was appalling behaviour from a public service. This proposal for closure came across as a crudely assembled ‘hatchet job’ with no real intention of considering a viable alternative.

North Bute Primary school building was in need of significant monies spent on it (this money was already ear-marked for our school and visible within a council budget). However in practice it appeared as if no effort had been made by Argyll and Bute Council to consider alternatives to the refurbishment of the school building other than the most expensive upgrade imaginable. When the school parent council proposed more realistic, costed, proposals, these were not well received.

Effect on local community: it is very clear that rural schools are absolutely integral to the communities they cater for, and that the relationship is two-way: close the school and effectively close the community. Strong words, but how can it be otherwise? It is inevitable that local communities will shrink if their school closes. Absolutely a local authority should consider this impact. The phrase ‘Highland Clearances’ was used frequently in relation to the school closure campaign instigated by Argyll and Bute Council.

Q8b - Suggestions for improvement

Why not embrace these rural schools? Support them and encourage them, and watch these rural communities grow. Some local authorities have gone down this road, and it has been successful (e.g. Dumfries and Galloway).

Q9a - School estate

The school estate issue was very pertinent to North Bute Primary School and the threat of closure. The school building was clearly in need of some upgrading (after 30 years of virtually no such investment by the local authority!). However the upgrade proposal assembled by Argyll and Bute was hard to believe, such were the excessive alterations envisaged and costing of this.

The North Bute Primary School parent council took it upon itself to commission an alternative upgrade costing, meeting the same fundamental requirements, and did so for about 30 per cent of the price. The council’s proposal was just not realistic. If this is how Argyll and Bute carries out its school estate management generally, then it is no wonder that they are tight for cash. It represented a highly inefficient use of taxpayers’ money and hopefully not symptomatic of other local authorities.

Local authorities should be more open to ideas around the maintenance of their school estate – why not work more with local communities, where there is a vested interest in keeping schools in good working condition? Why not meet with communities to explore these issues, rather than letting such good will become lost in red tape?

Q9b - capacity of primary and secondary schools

At present local authorities have leeway as to how they implement Scottish Government guidelines on school capacity and occupancy – which makes sense, given the range of demographics across Scotland. However, Argyll and Bute Council implemented an outrageous version of this, with the effect that schools across Argyll and Bute were ‘apparently all only half-full’, when these same schools would have been at least three-quarters full in any other local authority in Scotland.

Argyll and Bute should never have been allowed to build a proposal for school closure around this implementation of capacity/occupancy calculation. As mentioned previously, Argyll and Bute Council’s behaviour on this particular issue left a lot to be desired, with strong evidence suggesting deliberate misrepresenting of figures to try and shore up their highly flawed occupancy claims.

Local authorities need to be realistic and honest on this issue. Schools with empty classrooms are not the drain on resources that some people might suggest (see Prof. Neil Kay, 2005: The Accounts Commission and School Closures - Draft) and the capacity/occupancy issue should be reassessed in this context.

Q9c - projected population numbers and pupil rolls:

Claims made by Argyll and Bute Council around trends in population and local birth rates were highly contentious and challenged publicly for their reliability. The data source mostly referred to was General Registry of Scotland (GRoS), however there were real doubts over how Argyll and Bute Council interpreted their data; they would not have survived any serious interrogation. It has been seen from the latest population data released by GRoS (Dec. 2011) that Argyll and Bute Council’s 2009/10 projections were incorrect (http://forargyll.com/2011/12/argylls-latest-birth-rate-statistics-underline-distortions-in-school-closure-proposals/) This link explores this issue.

Local authorities must be professional and beyond reproach in how they use such data; this is a highly technical subject and any use of this data must be in a similar vein – why not engage GRoS themselves to interpret population trends in a given context, using genuine statisticians with experience in this field, rather than some internal local authority researcher with limited experience.

Q10c - comments on consultation under the Schools Consultation Act or how it could be improved?

The opinion of North Bute Primary school Parent Council is that the Schools Consultation Act is a valuable piece of legislation that offers protection to rural schools and communities from ill-thought-out closure proposals. The cornerstones of the Act include the critical issues at stake: the educational benefit of the children involved, and the well-being of the local communities; with an obligation for local authorities to seriously consider viable alternatives to closure.

The experience of North Bute Primary school Parent Council, during the recent program of proposed primary school closures was that Argyll and Bute Council made at best pretence of adhering to their statutory obligations under the Schools Consultation Act 2010. The first and subsequent revised proposal documents drawn up for the closure of North Bute Primary came across as a copy/paste exercise, with every one of the 26 proposed school closures subjected to identical analyses in some aspects of the Schools Consultation Act.

There were also a range of highly significant inaccuracies and mistakes in the proposal document’s figures, again very much giving the impression that the requirements of the Schools Consultation Act were not being given due respect, and almost as if the authors did not expect that those involved would read this document closely.

We can only imagine the amount of resource that Argyll and Bute Council invested in assembling together their program for closure of 26 schools; his included some very highly paid consultants. And yet it became apparent, under FOI documents seen, that the then education spokesperson (Councillor Isobel Strong) had been kept unawares of the extent of the closure program intended. This very much gives an impression that the process was underhand and political, even at this very early stage. This is again unacceptable behaviour.

Q11b - role of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education under the Schools Consultation Act?

We would expect that the role of the HMIE in this process is entirely independent.

Q12 - comments on the call-in process and how it could be improved

Our view is that this is a critical safety-net in the school closure process. The recent attempt at closure of North Bute Primary has left the impression that our local authority will `do what it takes’ to push through a closure, even when the figures do not support their claims or arguments. For this reason we believe that it is imperative that the Scottish Government have a voice in this process, to prevent an irreversible injustice.

We believe that free legal aid should be made available in such cases.

Q13 - statutory guidelines to local authorities under the Schools Consultation Act

The guidelines appear to be clear in their requirements. In our experience problems arise when a local authority tries to circumvent these guidelines, or to not adhere to them correctly. In the closure proposal document for North Bute Primary school published by Argyll and Bute Council it seemed as if these guidelines had not been taken seriously; indeed, if these guidelines had been genuinely considered it became clear quite quickly that Argyll and Bute Council could not have argued a case for closure of this school under the requirements of the Schools Consultation Act 2010 – and rightly so!

Q14/Q15 – Best Value and funding requirements:

Rural education invariably refers to small schools (less than 70 pupils), which are significantly subsidised by the Scottish Government via the GAE small rural schools grant scheme. It follows that the cost of service provision in these schools (e.g. cost per pupil) to local authorities are often actually less than the cost of education in larger, urban schools. Furthermore, under-occupied schools are in fact not a drain on resources to local authorities, as argued by Prof. Kay (2005: The Accounts Commission and School Closures – Draft).

In our opinion, therefore, the cost of provision of education service as evidenced by Argyll and Bute Council in the recent program of proposed school closures was significantly over-stated. That is, the cost of rural education is certainly not as expensive as Argyll and Bute Council would have us believe.

For very small rural schools, say less than 20 pupils, there is an argument that local authorities require increased funding from the Scottish Government, over and above that currently provided.

One idea already mentioned is to try and strengthen the link between rural schools and their communities, through giving the communities a greater role in the maintenance of the school building and grounds, whether this is simply cleaning the playground or a council-approved local business carrying out some work on the school building. This would require local authorities to make a small leap of faith in this regard, to show some imagination and open-mindedness, but the gains are obvious.

During the recent threat of closure to North Bute Primary a significant number of local council-approved businesses offered to undertake work to the building free of charge or for a much reduced rate; invariably these businesses had a personal link with the school in question.

Q16 - links between rural education and the support and development of rural communities.

Clearly schools are integral to the communities they support. They provide a significant reason why families remain living in or re-locate to rural communities. Rather than adopting what was seen as an unnecessarily negative stance towards small rural school by Argyll and Bute Council, local authorities could show a positive commitment to rural schools, and in-so-doing encourage people to live in these communities.

The Scottish Government has shown support for rural communities through the GAE small schools grant scheme: why can’t local authorities adopt a similar position? How can Argyll and Bute talk seriously about rural regeneration when they attempted to close 26 rural schools?

It is our opinion that Argyll and Bute Council has seriously the trust between itself and its communities, in the wake of its closure campaign; not to mention the tax-payers money and time that has been wasted. The phrase `hammer to crack a nut’ comes to mind; our recommendation is that local authorities need to be much more sophisticated and open-minded around the issue of rural education. They should view rural schools and communities as strength and not a weakness.

Q17

There is no shortage of evidence for the benefits of small class sizes, which many rural schools offer.

Q18 – other comments

We believe that Argyll and Bute Council have defined a benchmark in poor and unacceptable behaviour and that no other local authority in Scotland should ever repeat this. There are issues around service provision of rural education, but our opinion is that Argyll and Bute Council greatly exaggerated the problems.

This Commission was formed in response to the situation generated by Argyll and Bute Council from its sledgehammer attempts to close 26 rural primary schools. Surely there are better ways than this? Surely local authorities can work with rural communities rather than against them? It seems so short-sighted to cripple rural communities through wide-spread closures.

Should local authorities wish to pursue a school closure they must be honest and accurate and thorough in their arguments. What we had to accept from Argyll and Bute Council was appalling, and has created a huge mistrust in the communities across the region, around this issue. How could we ever trust these officials again? The Schools Consultation Act 2010 is a fair piece of legislation, in the circumstances: namely, Scotland has large areas of rural communities and they can be either supported (as the Scottish Government has done) or encouraged to depopulate (as Argyll and Bute Council seemed to favour) – the Act is in line with the former.

These comments are not intended as an attempt to vilify Argyll and Bute Council for their recent behaviour around these issues; it is just that this is the well of experience that we are drawing from, and in-so-doing making what we hope are constructive comments for how best to approach the issues around rural education.