North Bute safe - for now - as council suspends schools consultation

THE axe has been removed, temporarily at least, from above the head of North Bute Primary School in Port Bannatyne – and 24 other threatened primaries – after Argyll and Bute Council agreed to suspend its controversial school closure proposals.

Members of the council unanimously agreed to put the current consultation process on hold when they met in Lochgilphead on Wednesday.

All public meetings connected to that consultation, including one in Port Bannatyne on February 3, have now been cancelled.

A new set of consultation proposals for Argyll and Bute's school estate will now be drawn up and brought before the council on March 3 – though the authority still intends to implement its plans in October this year.

A presentation on Wednesday from the Scottish Rural Schools Network highlighted what chairman Sandy Longmuir called "errors and inaccuracies... (which] stretch into almost every facet" of the previous consultation proposals.

However, Mr Longmuir's fears before the meeting that there might not even be a discussion on the subject (as reported here) proved groundless – to his surprise, and that of several others - when provost Billy Petrie ruled that the detail in the SRSN report could be debated in the chamber.

But campaigners' delight at Wednesday's decision has been tempered by a reminder that the fight to save North Bute - and the other threatened schools - is far from over.

Sophie Reid, who chairs North Bute's parent council, said of the news: "It's a positive step, but it doesn't change anything in our eyes.

"It could result in our school coming off the council's closure list, but that's still a very big 'if'.

"It's good that the public meetings have been cancelled, but now we've got to wait until March for the new proposals. We're happy, but nothing has really changed."

Brian Davidson, who retired as North Bute's headmaster in June 2009 after 21 years in the post, and has already made public his view on the matter, told The Buteman: "It's very good that the people involved on all sides have done what they've done.

"I hope it's for the best, and I hope things will now move in the right direction – although I'm not yet entirely convinced that they will.

"However, the timescale involved leaves me concerned that things might be rushed through. Things were already happening with what seemed to me to be unseemly haste, but now that might be even more the case.

"There has, to me, been a bit of a bulldozer approach adopted, which has not acknowledged the weight of evidence against the proposals until forced to do so."

Mr Longmuir gave his presentation after the council voted in favour of education spokesperson Cllr Ellen Morton's motion to suspend the consultation process – the result of another ruling by the provost, and one which disappointed several opposition members.

Bute councillor Robert Macintyre, leader of the opposition SNP group, put forward an amendment which would also have suspended the consultation process, and removed Parklands School in Helensburgh, for children with additional educational needs, from the review.

But Cllr Morton's motion – which also criticised SNP education minister Michael Russell for his views on the subject, contained in an email leaked to local and national media earlier this week (story here) – carried the day by 18 votes to 15.

Cllr Morton said: "Confirmation from the Scottish Government that our settlement is significantly lower than we expected means there has been a material change of circumstances which surround the decision made by council on November 25.

"As a result we have agreed to suspend consultation on our school amalgamation proposals immediately.

"The proposals we have were developed by the previous spokesperson for education. I've given them careful consideration and, in light of the new information we have relating to our settlement it's right we re-visit our review of the primary school estate.

"However, suspending the current consultation process does not change the fact that the council is facing unprecedented financial challenges. Our cut in grant funding from the Scottish Government is twice as high as the national average. We have to make significant savings in 2011 and beyond. The education service cannot be exempt from the cuts which all council services face.

"I want everyone to be clear that our decision to suspend the current process allows us reconsider our review of the entire primary school estate and that the suspension will not impact on our plans to implement decisions in October 2011.

"I am in no doubt that we still have very difficult decisions ahead of us."

More reaction in the next issue of The Buteman - on sale on January 13.

The full text of Cllr Morton's motion is as follows.

The council:

(a) expresses its appreciation of the work which individuals, schools and communities have put in to the current consultation process; thus illustrating the benefits that have arisen from going out to consultation.

(b) notes with concern the detail in the article that appeared in the Glasgow Herald article dated 4th January with reference to the Minister for Education and requests that the chief executive of our council raises this issue with senior civil servants in the Scottish Government. Further, seeks an assurance that our council will receive a fair and impartial hearing as it progresses an outcome to its service review process, in particular, its education school estate.

(c1) notes the minister has apparently identified a list of 8/9 schools for closure with no consultation, analysis or public reasoning, and is quoted as describing council officers as "obdurate and working against him";

(c2) regrets that the minister has failed to respond to the letter of December 6 from the education spokesperson asking for a meeting with the minister to discuss the Rural Schools Grant, and authorises the spokesperson for education to write to the minister requesting details of the extra finance the council could obtain to "look at the issue in the round" to "allow itself some breathing space"

(c3) notes that the Scottish Government's response to representations made by the council completely ignores that this 'mainland' council has the largest number of islands to support of any Scottish authority, 25 in total.

(d1) notes that the average cut in council funding across Scotland is 2.59%;

(d2) notes that Argyll and Bute Council faces a funding cut of 11.429 million or 4.94%, the worst in Scotland, plus inflation and cost pressures, meaning that 15.434 million savings need to be found;

(d3) notes with concern the adverse impact that the current system of calculating small school support grants has on Argyll and Bute where 25 of our small schools have fewer than 20 pupils.

(e1) reaffirms its decision to review the entire primary school estate, as required by HMIE in 2005/2007 and by the independent auditors on behalf of our national scrutiny bodies;

(e2) agrees that in the light of all the above factors, the current consultation process should be halted, and authorises the spokesperson for education to bring forward a new set of consultation proposals to reflect on the consultation feedback already submitted and the knowledge acquired by the spokesperson on her visits to schools across Argyll and Bute;

(e3) agrees that if any schools are taken forward for merger, implementation will remain as in the current proposal, i.e. in October 2011;

(e4) agrees that the spokesperson for education bring back new proposals to the council meeting on March 3.