Everyone, with the possible exception of Cabinet Secretary Russell (who is a hard man to flummox) was surprised today when Argyll & Bute binned its plans to close 11 rural schools, with the exception of 2 that had no pupils. But Mike had made a plea for a moratorium for a year on rural school closures and may be demonstrating a better understanding for what constitutes an education than some of his predecessors.
While it is largely A&B, Highland and Comhairle nan Siar who have large rural tracts with many isolated small schools who are in the firing line of publicity, in fact most councils outside cities face the issue in some form. The issue has been with us for some time, driven by rural depopulation in some areas, but it is the financial crisis and successive real cuts to council budgets that have brought it to a head. Having been asked for savings, councils understandably look at their biggest outlay as part of the exercise: in general, schools account for half of the £11bn council budget in Scotland.
Much of the opposition appears, at first sight, to come from parents. But dig deeper and more subtle and cogent reasons than parental self-interest soon emerge. Since Gigha’s community buyout in 2002, the school roll has grown from 6 to 15. This can be seen as a reflection of a dynamic community. But the community itself credits their school for being the bond that held them together while they rebuilt. Eigg’s story is similar, where their 8-pupil school was a backbone on which the community rebuilt itself. While finance is important, so is community cohesion and viability. Schools are vital to both
This is true when Comhairle nan Siar considers closing South Uist’s Stoneybridge or Highland has an eye on the primaries scattered across Caithness. Schools are like marram holding the machair together. Without them, people blow away, And this is as true in Teviotdale and Hutton as on the machair or in the Flow Country. Even more than post offices, more than the village shop, schools pump lifeblood into remote areas, make it possible for all generations to live in sustainable communities and not just leave the elderly to their memories in silence.
Clearly there are economic penalties for this. The smallest school in my own East Lothian (Humbie, 18 pupils), costs three times as much per pupil as the average. Should we close it and transfer everyone to Saltoun (54 pupils) 5 miles away? Or should we get creative, acknowledge its vital rôle in the village and find ways to make it less expensive without compromising the education? What about sharing a Head Teacher with Saltoun? Would parents extend their support into extracurricular activity? Could costs, materials, IT, transport, not be somehow subsidised?
So many good schools are made better by parental involvement that there is surely scope, rather than accepting the beancounter (= close ’em) approach, to have the community augment core teaching work with support that not only justifies the school remaining open but makes it foolish to consider closing such a resource, such a bonding force for good in the community. Mike’s intervention was about more than schools; he is one step beyond the African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” by seeing it takes a school to make a village in the first place.