Furious reaction to ‘incompetent’ school closure plans

ARGYLL and Bute Council’s apparent determination to press ahead with formal consultation on the closure of North Bute Primary School in Port Bannatyne – and 11 other threatened primaries across the council area – has, not surprisingly, attracted a furious response from those battling against the plans.

SNP parliamentary candidate Michael Russell says the case of North Bute is a particularly good example of the authority’s “deceitful approach” to its school estate review – while the Argyll Rural Schools Network says it believes the council’s “incompetent closure proposals” will “inevitably fail”, and has called for an independent inquiry into the conduct of the authority’s executive.

The council will meet on Tuesday, April 19 to consider whether to put proposals to close 12 primary schools across Argyll and Bute – or, as the authority has always put it, the amalgamation of those primaries with other, larger, schools – out to a period of statutory public consultation.

The background papers for this Tuesday’s meeting include the proposals which will go forward for consultation, if the council votes to proceed that way, along with the minutes of ‘pre-consultation’ workshops held in all the affected communities last month.

But the closure proposals show little or no sign of having considered, or attempted to address, the issues raised at those workshops – prompting Mr Russell to label the ‘pre-consultation’ process, backed by the council on March 5, as “a complete sham”.

In North Bute’s case, the closure proposal re-states the authority’s view that it will cost £807,477 to improve the school’s buildings – and even then they will still not be fit for purpose.

But there is no indication of how that £807,477 figure has been calculated – and nor is there any mention of the argument put forward by those fighting to save the school, who believe the buildings can be improved to a more than acceptable standard by using more than £200,000 which has been set aside in Argyll and Bute’s capital budget for some years for that very purpose, and who have commissioned a firm of architects to report on what could be achieved for that much less onerous sum.

Without taking the council’s hotly-disputed £807,477 into account, the authority itself estimates that closing North Bute would result in a net loss of £34,252 per annum, largely due to a reduction of £150,660 in grant funding for the operation of small schools – but this net loss, too, has been disputed by those campaigning to save North Bute.

Other arguments put forward by members of the local community at North Bute’s pre-consultation meeting on March included the following:

* The village hall and community garden would close if the school is shut.

* Incoming families would be discouraged from settling in the Port.

* Fear of vandalism would increase.

* There would be a loss of community involvement and interaction between young people and residents of other ages.

* There would be less family tourism to the area.

* The school building would become derelict.

* Transport costs would increase and North Bute pupils would be unable to walk or cycle to school.

Analysis of those important points will, it appear, have to wait until April 19 – when 15 proposals in respect of the 12 threatened schools will be considered, and be the subject of separate votes, by all 36 members of the council.

Mr Russell said: “The much vaunted pre-consultation meetings have turned out to be a complete sham, as not a single proposal has been abandoned.

“Despite the clearest evidence at every meeting that all the local communities affected completely reject the closure of their own school, the council has simply ignored any view but its own.

“Each closure document issued by the Council over the past six months, including these new ones, repeats the false assertions about demands from Audit Scotland and HMIE to reduce capacity in the school estate. In fact these bodies have always made it clear that final decisions about what schools are provided in the area is a matter of policy for Argyll and Bute Council and for Argyll and Bute Council alone.

“So these disastrous proposals are actually the political choice of the Independent/Lib Dem/Tory administration in Argyll and Bute and they must take full responsibility for driving them forward against all educational, social and economic logic.

“Given the history of the matter, most parents now believe that they are being cynically manipulated by the administration.

“Amongst the many examples of this deceitful approach, the case of North Bute stands out. The documents grievously under estimate the cost to the council of closing the school, but massively over estimate the amount required for refurbishment.

“If any of these proposals become formal closure consultations each and every community affected will have the full backing of the SNP during the consultation period and we will give every assistance to that community to put forward its case and devise alternatives.

“But I strongly believe no community should be put in that position - these closure proposals are deeply flawed, have been selected by no rational or transparent criteria and are avoidable not least because of the additional £2.5 million given to the council by the Scottish Government last month.”

A spokesperson for the Argyll Rural Schools Network said: “The mélange of misleading information and opinion masquerading as facts that blighted the original documents is still being shamelessly punted as a case to close perfectly good schools.

“We have now seen the council publishing incompetent closure proposals for consideration at the next council meeting. These proposals will inevitably fail, wasting yet again large amounts of money and prolonging further the cruel stress on the children, parents and teachers of the affected schools.

“We wish all of Argyll and Bute’s citizens to recognize that the future of our children’s education is being driven by a council that does not operate within the expected pillars of honesty, transparency, integrity and objectivity.

“We call upon our elected councillors to end this debacle by refusing to progress any proposals for closure on April 19 and back the call from many councillors for an urgent, independent enquiry into the conduct of the council’s executive.“

The agenda for the April 19 meeting also includes an item headed ‘Response to Scottish Rural Schools Network allegations’, in which the council’s executive director of community services, Cleland Sneddon, who is in charge of the school estate review, replies in detail to accusations that he misled council members over information he provided on school capacities – in particular at North Bute, and comparisons made with other apparently similarly-sized schools elsewhere in Scotland – and on the use of advice from the General Register of Scotland on population predictions.

That response, along with the council’s closure proposals, can be read in full by clicking on the link below at the council’s website.

The basis of the council’s argument in favour of all the proposals are that school rolls are in decline, both overall and at the specific schools mentioned, and that keeping the threatened schools open “draws funding away from areas of spending which have a direct benefit to the continuing education of the children of Argyll and Bute” (the council’s words, not ours).

Besides the arguments over capacity and the condition of North Bute’s infrastructure, the council has always argued – and continues to do so in the closure proposal document – that the school’s pupils will benefit from an enhanced educational experience by moving to Rothesay Joint Campus, and that the merger would allow staff to benefit from greater opportunities to share effective practice and enhance professional development, particularly in respect of the delivery of the Curriculum for Excellence programme.

However, North Bute’s supporters also argue that the council’s statement of ‘educational benefits’ are opinions, not facts, and that the delivery of Curriculum for Excellence is not necessarily easier in larger schools.

If Tuesday’s council meeting agrees to begin statutory consultation on the closure of North Bute, and the other 11 affected schools, the consultation will run from May 3 until June 30.

A public meeting will be held at a time and venue to be notified, convened by the council and with an opportunity for questions and comments.

If the council decides to close North Bute, Scottish ministers will have six weeks from the date of that decision to call in the proposals if they wish to do so.