No sign of Christmas truce in bitter schools row

THERE seems little prospect of an outbreak of peace and goodwill to all in the increasingly bitter war of words between Argyll and Bute Council and campaigners fighting to save 25 primary schools from closure.

Following the council's angry recent denial ofclaims by the Argyll Rural Schools Network (ARSN) that the proposals would "blow a 9 million hole" in the authority's budget plans, campaigners against the plans have now been accused of using "negative tactics" and of "bombarding the council with a mammoth volume of enquiries designed to use up substantial staff time and resources".

The authority's new education spokesperson, Councillor Ellen Morton, who was appointed after her Liberal Democrat colleagues formed a new coalition with the Conservatives and Independents, said: "The tactics adopted by the Network have concentrated unsuccessfully in trying to find fault in the process.

"The challenges facing the council are real, the scale of which is likely to impact on every service area, and these challenges will not go away.

"Rather than this negative approach, we have received a number of positive approaches from communities who wish to discuss positive alternative options to address the issues.

"As we have throughout the process, we would encourage communities to participate fully in the consultation process and to bring forward suggestions that could be considered by the council."

In response, an ARSN statement said the organisation had already been successful in a number of areas, including having the original proposals withdrawn, exposing the "community impact misinformation" in the council dossier and challenging the many errors and omissions in the proposal documents.

ARSN convener Murdo MacDonald said: "Councillor Morton accuses us of being 'negative'. In fact ARSN will support the closure of any school where it can be shown to be of educational benefit to the children involved.

"Where no educational benefit can be shown we will positively campaign to protect our children and our communities. That is in accordance with the law as given in the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010.

"We will continue to follow the law rather than take instruction from Ellen Morton."

The proposals to consult on the closure of 25 schools, among them North Bute Primary in Port Bannatyne, were approved on November 25 with the support of Lib Dem, Tory and independent councillors after the authority's SNP group decided to turn its back on the plans.

The council's director of community services, Cleland Sneddon, has also hit back at ARSN claims that reports used to back up the case for closure were "sexed up" by officials prior to being considered by the council – even though the authors of two studies quoted by the authority denied that their findings undervalued rural schools.

The authors of those reports, Denis Donoghue of HallAitken and Helena Crow from the Scottish Government's rural and environmental research and analysis unit, both told ARSN they were unhappy at their research being used to back the closure proposals.

But Mr Sneddon said ARSN claims that councillors were "deceived" prior to that November 25 vote were "entirely wrong".

In a letter in this week's issue of The Buteman Mr Sneddon says: "While some people do not agree with the proposals we cannot avoid the fact that the education service must change. The consultation gives everyone a genuine opportunity to share their ideas so together we can agree what these changes are."

Mr Sneddon's more detailed response to the ARSN allegations can be read in full here.

The formal consultation period on the closure proposals began on December 13 and runs until February 24; a public meeting on the North Bute plans is due to be held in Port Bannatyne village hall on February 3.