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Education at the heart of new school safeguards
Education will be at the centre of consultations on changes to schools, with an educational benefit statement and report from HMIE required in every case.
The Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Bill, passed by Parliament last week creates a robust and transparent framework for consultation on school closures, and other major changes, that means educational issues must be taken into account.
The process will be more open with pupils, staff, parents, parent councils and all school users having to be consulted. There will be a mandatory six week term time consultation period. The Bill also requires full and detailed proposals to be provided at the start of a consultation and provides opportunities to challenge incomplete or inaccurate information.
For rural schools, councils will have to give full consideration to all viable alternatives, the impact on the community and the impact on travel arrangements, before consultation.
Finally an additional safeguard for school closures means Ministers will be able to call in decisions where they feel there have been serious flaws in the process.
Cabinet Secretary for Education Fiona Hyslop said:
"I believe this Bill creates a framework for fully-informed, transparent and rigorous consultation around any potential school closure in Scotland. Decisions will be taken by local councils, in full consultation with local people and with the benefit of input from the experts in Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education.
"It also creates a new safeguard that allows Scottish Ministers to call in any closure case where the consultation has been seriously flawed - which gives the public further assurance that the councils must follow the correct process.
"This Bill delivers our manifesto commitment to introduce a presumption against the closure of rural schools. We know that in some rural areas - where the threat of the loss of the post office, shop or other village services may already be hanging over them - a threat to their school can feel like the final straw in the erosion of their community and local economy.
"That's why this Government is taking strong action to offer protection to these schools, communities and their economies. I believe this Bill will play a part in supporting rural Scotland.
"I am pleased that the Parliament has joined with us to offer this protection to pupils, parents and the general public."
Sandy Longmuir from the Scottish Rural Schools Network (SRSN) said
"SRSN is looking forward to seeing the Bill become law. We are already seeing some Local Authorities adopting its principles and this is leading to a greater understanding of the issues surrounding rural education. A number are currently engaging with parents and communities in line with the requirement in the Bill to look at alternatives to closure. This is leading to trust and cooperation where once there was none.
"Where schools do go to consultation on closure, the new robust consultation framework should ensure that all the relevant facts are aired leading to a greater understanding of the issues on all sides. We have always felt that the backstop of referral to the Minister in the case of a flawed consultation will be used infrequently as more open practices lead to better decision making.
"Taken as a whole, the new consultation procedures should ensure that parents, communities and elected members will be better informed, improve relationships with Local Authorities and provide a degree of external scrutiny to the process. "
The Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Bill was introduced to Parliament (March 2, 2009).
The Bill will establish a new robust consultation framework for all proposed school closures and other changes affecting schools e.g. changes to catchment areas or site The main details of the changes are as follows:-
Educational Benefits Statement - the authority must produce an educational benefits statement setting out its assessment of the effects on pupils, and other users, of any affected school, children who would be likely to attend and other pupils in the authority area.
Proposal Paper - the authority must publish a proposal paper containing details of the proposal, the proposed date for implementation and an educational benefits statement. For rural school closure proposals, details of the authority's assessment of the three factors to which they have had special regard (see below).
Notice and consultation period - the authority must give the relevant consultees notice of the proposal including a summary of the proposal, where to get a copy of the proposal paper and how to make written representations. It will also contain the closing date of the consultation, which will be a minimum of six weeks of term time.
Involvement of HMIE - the authority must give HMIE a copy of the proposal paper, copies of the written representations, a summary oral representations and any other related documentation. HMIE have three weeks to submit a report on the educational aspects of the proposal to the authority.
Additional time for consideration - An authority could not take a decision on a proposal until three weeks have elapse after they have published the consultation report.
Rural school closures - Authority must take three factors into account before proposing to close any rural school. These are:-
- any viable alternative to closure,
- the likely effect on the local community if the school were to close, and
- the likely effect of different travelling arrangements occasioned by the closure.
Call-in by Scottish Ministers
Consultees have three weeks to make representations to Ministers, followed by a further three weeks for them to decide whether or not to call in the decision. The grounds for call-in would be where it appears to Ministers that an authority has failed in a significant regard to comply with the Bill's requirements or has failed to take proper account of a material consideration relevant to the proposal.