Neil Kay's website



Councils across Scotland have been currently pursuing proposals to close schools - and as noted below, not just rural schools. Recently there has been a general pause in the process, partly as a result of the new Scottish Executive government formed by the SNP and committed to a "presumption against closure". This policy has been a central plank of the Rural Schools Network, a body which has seen parents from all over Scotland pool their knowledge, skills and efforts to fight what many see as financially driven exercises which will have adverse impacts on the affected children and communities. Many people have been and are involved in this network but Sandy Longmuir from Angus is the driving force that has been helping create and develop the network. Much valued help from over the border has also been given by Mervyn Benford and the National Association for Small Schools.

Capacity and class size are two issues of central importance in this area. See the panel on the right for more on these issues.

Schools blog

This posted 27th October 2010: what many of us in Argyll,and Bute have been expecting for some years has come about. Argyll and Bute Council want to colse one-third of their primary schools. See here for my initial comments

This posted 11th September 2007: I have been busy with work and ferry blog issues (see elsewhere on this website) However, I really could not let what the Scotsman terms as the new "leader elect of Scottish Labour" (I thought she was just leader of the Scottish Parliamentary Labour bit) and her comments on how to deal with class sizes pass without comment. In the Scotsman today she was quoted:

On education, Ms Alexander said she wants to drop the emphasis on smaller class sizes - a clear aim of the last Labour-led administration - and instead introduce personal tutors for poorly performing primary-school pupils.
I find it difficult to imagine anything more unambitious, and indeed pathetic than that. Primary class sizes in Scotland are already amongst the highest in Europe, is just about everyone else out of step except us? This is out of the same small minded myopic mindset that gave us the "best small country in the world" mentality. And with this new New Labour doctrine, you have to wait until you find the pupils are failing in your system before you do anything about it, and then you try to make up for just those worst-case failures your own system has produced? If the problems are remedial, they should not have been allowed to happen in the first place. And they may only be the most visible indications of the adverse effects of large class size that helped create or hide them, many more children may fail to realise their potential that do not qualify for later remedial help. That is one of the crucial reasons why you should have small classes sizes in the first three years of primary school for all, so you don't have to try to remedy your own failures of "poorly performing pupils" later. And the evidence on small class sizes (also see panel on right) is that not only can they prevent the need for expensive remedial support later, such later remedial support may be ineffective or only partially effective because once pupils have lost pace with their peers in the crucial first three years, it can be very difficult or impossible to catch up - quite apart from the socially and educationally divisive issue of taking them out of class for "special help".

I have had two children go through primary school and Ms Alexander has not. I have read the research, but I presume Ms Alexander has not. Ms Alexander is leader elect of a part of Scottish Labour and I am not, but if this is indicative of the kind of policies that her "New Labour, new strategy" is going to espouse, then I am glad she is a member of New Labour and I am not.

This posted 8th July 2007: The Minister showed she was serious (see post immediately below for 24th June) with the decision to not sanction the closure of Glentrool School in the Borders. I can just see the civil servants muttering "Yes Minister.. a courageous decision if I may so...." The local MSP Alasdair Morgan said "Clearly the minister has taken the view that the council were being rather short-sighted.... Instead of pulling up the drawbridge they are going to have to see what they can actually do to make Glentrool the kind of place that can support a school."

Exactly. Schools as an integral part of the community and part of local economic and social development? Who'd have thought it. In fairness to at least one previous minister, Peter Peacock, I think he thought so too, though I doubt he had the support of his party or the civil servants on school closures. Fiona Hyslop has the support of her party but still deserves full credit for her detemined start on this. Now most of what she has to worry about comes in the form of these helpful civil servants .....

This posted 24th June 2007: As the new Scottish Minister of Education made clear recently in an answer to a parliamentary question, the government is committed to a "presumption against closure" for schools.

Schools S3O-2 - Elizabeth Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con) : To ask the Scottish Executive how it proposes to take forward the commitment to protect rural schools from closure and what action it will take to assist those schools at immediate risk.

Answered by Fiona Hyslop (31 May 2007): We have made clear our commitment to introduce a presumption against the closure of rural schools and shall be considering further the detailed implications of taking that forward. We shall also take this into account in our consideration of decisions on any rural school closure proposals which may require ministerial consent.

There have been dramatic changes over the past few months in this context. Previously, for the reasons which are outlined in the various blogs below in some detail, there has been what was effectively a "presumption favouring closure" for many schools in Scotland.

But it is not just the fact that the new government is committed to finding ways to put a presumption against closure into practice that may help save some Scottish schools from closure. At least three other influences which have only emerged as potential issues recently may help stem these pressures. One is the significant influx of young workers with families from Eastern bloc countries which have recently joined the EU, and which are leading to significant increase in schools enrolment in some cases. The Guardian gave the example in November of the roll of one Scottish primary school which grew by 25% in the previous year, with most of those pupils coming from accession states, particularly Slovakia.

The second influence which has emerged is the SNP Executive's commitment to small class sizes, particularly in P1 to P3. As I have noted elsewhere in these pages, one of the adverse effects that typically follow from achools closure is increase in class sizes - not just for pupils for schools being closed, but also for those recipient schools to which the pupils are moved. So we have the prospect of a presumption against school closure being reinforced by a parallel policy against increasing class sizes (especially if this leads to classes over 18 for P1 to P3).

The third influence is the changing face of local councils since the May elections. A recent Times Education Supplement Scotland article stated: "John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, predicted that education could bind the new coalition administrations, given widely-shared attitudes to issues such as improving early years, reducing class sizes and investment in school buildings. The future of rural schools may prove more contentious, however. "I think it's going to be more difficult to close small schools," said Mr Stodter. "People who have been in opposition in the past have made some gain out of opposing rationalisation programmes."

Clearly different schools and different areas may be affected differently by these two possible influences. But one thing can be said for certain, in general public opinion against school closures is going to find increasing support from changes at political (local and national) and demographic levels. These elements all help to further discredit the Accounts Commission / Audit Scotland capacity-based analysis and advice in this area (see top of panel on right), an approach which had no sound analytical foundations even when it was first formulated and implemented. The sooner the spare capacity indicators forming the basis of Accounts Commission policy advice in this area are abandoned, the better.

This posted 23rd June 2007: it is sad and frustrating that certain individuals are given a license and platform to speak on policies and issues in this area when they are clearly misinformed or badly informed, and in turn may misinform the public. The spokesperson for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC), said about the Executive's policy to reduce class sizes to a maximum of 18 P1 to P3 in the Scotsman June 21st : "Whilst a reduction in class sizes is good for teachers, it is not clear to me it has the same benefits for pupils". If someone is going to pronounce on these issues from a position of influence on these issues, they have at least a responsibility to be aware of the research in these areas. She could make a start by reading some of the research under "Economics of Class Size" in the panel on the right. This is the same person who as spokesperson for SPTC stated in the context of school closures: "Children would get a much better education if they were taught in a larger primary with better resources than a much smaller one" (The Herald 29th September 2005). Why? Again, where is the evidence? And who is she speaking for? If the "Scottish Parent Teacher Council" is supposed to represent parents and teachers, its spokesperson certainly seems to have a curious way of protecting and representing parents or teachers (or, most importantly, pupils') interests - by arguing against small schools and small classes.

This posted 22nd June 2007: How to make a difference in Scottish education: start early.

Start early in school years; my piece on the bar on the right "the Economics of Class Size" shows the importance of getting class sizes down to 18 or less in the first three early years of primary schooling

Start early in political years; the current SNP Executive started early on this issue in 2002. The current Minister for the Environment Mike Russell when he was opposition Education Spokesperson in the Scottish Parliament outlined the party's policy on class sizes - nearly five years ago. The formulation and imminent implementation of this policy is a model of how such processes should be carried out.

First, Mike Russell appointed people to his policy Advisory Group for what they knew and not for who they were, and also not every person was a member of his political party. I know, because I was a member of that group. It is nice to see Gordon Brown currently trying to pursue similar inclusive policies for a government of all the talents, albeit with much less success to date.

Second, policy was formulated from the bottom up and grounded in actual experience (especially teachers) of those who Mike consulted in the Advisory Group. When asked what members of the group would like to see as SNP education policy and would make a diference to education in Scotland, the unifying policy was small class sizes.

Third, the resulting policy was evidence-based. I played a small part in this by doing a survey on the economics of class sizes for Mike's group which recommended a class size max of 18 for P1 to P3 . It was a small part because any reasonably competent researcher would quickly have come up with the same conclusions I came up with (this was the "summary I did in 2002" referred to in the panel on the right). The truth was out there if you just knew where and how to look.

Fourth, test for public opinion which was found to be strongly in favour. As Mike Russell reported in 2002, a poll conducted by the party across Scotland showed 81 per cent of people believed that the policy would improve education.

Fifth, get the party around the policy. It became a flagship policy for the party in the 2003 election

So that is how to generate a robust, cost-effective popular policy that will contribute to both economic growth and favour those who are economically and socially disadvantaged.

However, generating the policy was only the start. What has been impressive is the way that the policy has been carried forward and sustained with commendable force and consistency through all the intervening years in opposition and now into government. John Swinney, Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have all led and pushed this policy from leadership positions within their party. Now Fiona Hyslop the new Education Minister is putting the policy into practice. And she is doing it with reference to the same evidence-based principles that informed the policy in the first place, emphasising both the research on sustained gains in attainment for small class sizes in the early years, and also highlighting the need for "councils to focus these additional resources on deprived areas - where international research evidence indicates the greatest benefits will come'"

It was also recognised by the new minister that three major categories of resources are needed to make this work; more teachers, more and different physical capacity - and time. To these three categories of resource might be added a fourth - political will, especially at local level. All this will not happen overnight but will be a staged process taking some years. The important thing that the policy has moved from the formulation stage to implementation. That is where the devil may lie, but is also where the opportunities may be found to profoundly and permanently improve educational achievement, economic growth and social opportunities for Scotland.

For the Ministerial statement (20th June) on how this policy will be pursued, see here

This posted 1st January 2007: The background for the HMIe report referred to in the blog for 27th December below is perhaps clarified to some extent in the context of a Memorandum of Understanding between Audit Scotland and HMIe; it says:

"HMIE will consult with Audit Scotland in planning of thematic inspections that may involve value for money studies of aspects of education. Audit Scotland will consult with HMIE on its VFM studies programme and statutory performance indicators".

In principle, it looks a two-way street interaction. In practice, the influence will flow from Audit Scotland to HMIE. Audit Scotland have the 60% capacity rule (see Accounts Commission and School Closures) to throw at HMIE in favour of school closures. What does HMIE have to counter this (assuming they want to) other than a series of disconnected observations, experience, hunches etc from inspections?

As long as you assume the quantitative 60% rule is sound, Audit Scotland have the high ground in this "partnership". If I were to argue that 60% of auditors were crooks and you were to argue that no, based on your observatons, experience and hunches you think most of them were honest, my argument would win so long as the validity and foundations of this particular 60% rule was not questioned. Quantitative beats qualitative. If you can't measure it, it does not exist. Which is why it is so important to go for the heart of the matter, which is the 60 % capacity "rule". It all comes back to that,

This posted 31st December 2006: Nice Northern Scot article about Santa stepping in to help Logie Primary from Moray fight threat of closure, though disgraceful that spare capacity is still being used in a totally inappropriate way. Note Moray MSP Richard Lochhead reiterating the view that the 60% threshold is "artificial and lacks official status or validity". Exactly. Also, see other Northern Scot article for broader perspective on how this rule is now being applied by HMIe; The Moray Education Committee states "there has always been pressure on us from HMIe. They will revisit us in February and the first thing they will ask is what we have done about school rationalisation.". This fits in with the blog for 27th December on the HMIe report immediately below this.

This posted 27th December 2006: An HMIE report on Education Authority performance has caused outrage, see the Herald and the Scotsman for coverage and comments. In its section 2.6 "Resource and Financial Management" it states.

"One of the major challenges facing many councils was that of school rationalisation ... In a few authorities, senior officers in educational services have expended a very high level of resource to prepare plans for reorganisation, often in consultation with elected members, only to find that when unpopular decisions are to be taken, elected members are no longer willing to support them .... The rationalisation of schools provision is a sensitive and complex issue. The apparent slow progress in some areas ... reflects the difficulties inherent in a process set firmly in a local political context. Generally, parents and the wider local community do not wish to see the loss of acommunity resource. Elected local councillors, individually and corporately, may see the educational and financial benefits of rationalisation, but they are also acutely aware that such proposals can arouse considerable opposition and see the case for maintaining existing schools".

I think a strong case could be made that HMIE are not only acting outside their terms of reference and core objective, they are acting in ways antithetical to, and in potential conflict with, their core objective. The HMIE Annual Report for 2006 is here. It states that their Core Objective is "to promote and contribute to sustainable improvements in standards, quality and achievements for all learners in a Scottish education system which is inclusive". It says nothing about closing down schools, or how closing down schools may contribute to that Core Objective, yet the HMIE report on educational authorities appears biased in favour of the supposed "educational and financial benefits of rationalisation".

See also HMIE's "About Us" and their Framework Document (April 2005). I can find nothing in either document that would justify their advocating a financially driven programme of school closures across Scotland, especially in the absence of any evidence that this would support their core educational objective and their statutory terms of reference.

If HMIE are to get themselves into these areas one would expect at a minimum that their policy-related comments and advice would be evidence-based, and in turn based on educational grounds. On the contrary, they appear to ignore the evidence that small schools and the related issues of small class sizes for early years can positively contribute to the core objective of educational performance.

At the very least, HMIE appear to be acting as proxies for accountants (Audit Scotland / Accounts Commission) in this context. That is not, or at least should not be, their role and responsibility.

The final comments by HMIE in the Herald article are reminiscent of Accounts Commission / Audit Scotlands' washing their hands of responsibility for their own statements and criticism in the context of school rationalistion; 'A spokesman for HMIE denied the organisation was critical of councillors. "We have no view on the issue and it is a matter for the local authority to determine"'. All the objective observer has to do is read HMIE comments above and more fully in Section 2.6 of their report and decide whether that statement by HMIE is correct.

If I was marking this statutory body's performance in their assignment, I would fail it, tell them to go away and see what their terms of reference are, tell them to look at the evidence, then resubmit.

This posted 10th October 2006: COSLA have been given a chance (just like in 2000) to produce proper guidelines and advice on school closures and get their house in order, and have failed (just like in 2000). They have produced a Briefing Paper for MSPs and a "Good Practice" paper on how to close schools. But the whole orientation, tone and indeed remit is about the schools estate (and bricks and mortar) not the school institution (and children, education, and the wider community)

One of the most significant aspects in the main document which has the gall to call itself a "Good Practice Guide" is the long Appendix on "Communication and Consultation Issues" where there is one section on dealing with parents and their - quote - "emotional reaction" - unquote; one section on dealing with head teachers and staff and how they can be silenced and bought off; and, not one, but 7 (seven) sections (4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12 and 13) on how to handle the media.

That is what this "Good Practice Guide" is about. Information management and spin, not the public interest, certainly not genuine consultation. And they wonder why they are not trusted by parents and other interested parties?

One thing that might be overlooked by those who have not travelled down this road as long as we have in our part of the world is where it says;

"One thing will become apparent. Just as the actual implementation of any school estates strategy can be labour-intensive - particularly if the authority is trying to make a number of changes at the one time - so too can the delivery of an effective Communications Strategy. If a council considers that the in-house resources may be inadequate, then the introduction of outside consultants and/or additional temporary resources should be considered".

The frequent role of consultants in such a context is not to improve communication but to prevent it. They are intended to act as a buffer between the councillors and the administrative officials, especially to protect the Director of Education from embarassing questions - or any questions at all. I have sat in on a public "consultation" meeting where the consultant was asked to justify the Director of Education's policies - while the Director of Education sat mute and unresponsive in the front row. The consultants are very well paid lightning conductors.

The document is also clearly predicated on the assumption of rolling "rounds" of school closures. It ends;

The conclusion of the press conference and any subsequent TV/radio interviews should be the end of any dealings with the media on a particular round of school closures. Any outlet that comes along afterwards should simply be given a copy of the media statement – there is no need to have the lead politician/Director subjected to further questioning. After all, the final decision has now been taken and the issue is done and dusted. Until the next time…

"...round of school closures..."?.... "until the next time...."?. This orientation and assumption in favour of rolling programmes of school closures contrasts with England where the new guidelines in place have reduced school closures to a trickle.

This whole process is rather like having a gang which has been found guilty on numerous occasions of disrupting communities, mispresentation of facts, and irresponsible lack of care for the public interest. Now the gang is being asked to design their own ASBO. This is COSLA's design of the ASBO their members are to serve under.

If a gang designs its own ASBO what would you expect to find? As loose guidelines as possible; as much mealy-mouthed justification as possible for their past, present and future behaviour; as much potential for supporting their side of the story as possible; and as much scope and freedom to pursue their own behaviour as possible in the future. That is what you have here.

The COSLA document confirms what I have been convinced about for six years, that COSLA is incapable of putting its own house in order here, certainly not as far as designing its own ASBO is concerned.

This posted 5th October 2006: The Official Report of the Education Committee of the Scottish Parliament for 27th September is published, it was decided 27th September to keep Petition 872 (see blogs below) open and to ask COSLA whether it will address the 60 per cent capacity trigger (see my paper for more on the 60% trigger); also to ask Audit Scotland and HMIE what changes they anticipate in their activities and in their advice to councils as a result of the minister's letter on the issue.

This posted 19th September 2006: The transcript of last week's Scottish Parliament's Education Committee's consideration of PE872 on rural school closures is here, while the same Committee's consideration of school closures at the same meeting is here.

This posted 16th September 2006: The Press and Journal gives excellent coverage to the Rural Schools Networks campaign and relaed political developments here and here. On the Education Committee meeting in Parliament itself (see post for 14th September below), it was reported that 26 members of the Network (I was number 26) had travelled to Edinburgh to watch Sandy Longmuir's presentation of PE872 in front of the committee. We came from Moray, Argyll, Angus and the Scottish Borders, signalling this is a national problem and a national campaign.

This posted 14th September 2006: The Elgin Conference on "A Future for Rural Primary Schools?" is to be held on 23rd September, see here.

This posted 14th September 2006: The so called "60% rule" (where schools with less than 60% use of capacity may be considered as possible candidates for closure) has been widely discredited (e.g. see my Accounts Commission and School Closures). However, the genesis of the rule has been difficult to identify until recently. This is actually revealed in part of a letter to Richard Baker MSP from Audit Scotland which said "during the study an advisory panel from the Association of Directors of Education suggested that schools with less than 60% of places occupied could be seen as a realistic focus for potential rationalisation". So we have a situation in which (1) the Directors of Education blame the Accounts Commission / Audit Scotland for the 60% rule, and (2) the Accounts Commission / Audit Scotland blame the Directors of Education for the 60% rule. Whenever either party is are challenged on justifying the 60% rule, they point the finger at the other party. No-one accepts responsibilty for it or tries to justify it. Further, the "study" referred to in the Audit Scotland letter was actually carried out in 1995, this is the mists of educational time given how much has changed in educational practice, policy and technology in the intervening years. This is very powerful additional evidence discrediting the rule as having no defensible (or defended) basis. Thanks to Richard Baker MSP for permission to quote from the letter.

This posted 14th September 2006: The Scottish Parliament Education Committee heard PE872 on schools closures presented by Sandy Longmur, papers for the meeting are here, and the transcript of the committee's discussion will be available on the committee's home page next week .

This posted 10th September 2006: The Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) have just issued an updated briefing note on school closures.

This posted 12 July 2006: Encouraging article in the Shetland Times showing how Rural Schools Network is linking small schools threatened with closure right across Scotland, also cites Moray parents meeting with Peter Peacock, Minister for Education where the "60% rule" was discussed

This posted 12 July 2006: An article in the Shetland Times titled "Closing Schools can be Positive - Head" follows up what is being mooted in Shetland. Much of what is happening there echoes what has happened in other parts of Scotland. See also entry for 13th June 2006 below on this.

This posted 15th June 2006: Magnus Linklater in the Scotsman charts how the community at Roy Bridge at fighting closure of their school (see posting for November 21st 2005 below) . As he says, it challenges standard clichés. He says "Far from representing the decline of rural communities, falling school rolls and sullen residents, this could become a landmark case, showing the resilience of local people who are prepared to take matters into their own hands rather than stand back and watch fate dictate events".

This posted 13th June 2006: The Shetland News comments ("School closures won't work") that the council has put school closures back on the agenda for the third time in five years, "demonstrating an extraordinary lack of political awareness" according to the newspaper. The newspaper's report is here and the council's report is here. It makes clear that the exercise is driven by Audit Scotland. Apart from the potential effects of closure on the local economies and communities, it should also be noted that many of the schools involved in this proposed rationalisation process can be expected to have class sizes where the economics of small class sizes really begin to pay off (see panel on right). This can be expected to be damaged by "rationalisation". So instead of levelling up all schools to take advantage of the benefits of small classes in the early years (as in these Shetland schools), these moves instead help level down schools.

It is also worth noting the phrase from the council's report about the proposed closures; "Many staff are content to take the opportunity of school rationalisation to opt for redundancy/early retirement, with the related benefits that accrue, and therefore change can be achieved without conflict" (para 65). It would be useful to hear directly from these allegedly "many" Shetland teachers and the implication that they would be "content" with these proposals to close the schools they teach in, on the basis of being offered monetary and other benefits.

This posted 11th June 2006: The Herald newspaper reported of Friday that according to official figures for average class sizes in primary schools, Scotland lies 19th in a league table of 21 European countries, with only Ireland and England having a higher average.The teacher's union, the EIS is threatening strike action if class sizes are not cut. It can be noted in passing that an effect of school closures (indeed the area where major cost savings are made) is to actually increase class size. See panel on right for more on the economics of class sizes.

This posted 10th June 2006: I am grateful to a parent at Hilden Integrated Primary School in Northern Ireland who e-mailed me to say that many of the experiences with councils in Scotland recorded in the pages here echo their current experiences. See the Hilden website and judge for yourself.

This posted 3rd June 2006: Richard Lochhead MSP (see also posting 1st June) and Sandy Longmuir (see above) both attack the 60% rule in an article and letter in the Press and Journal yesterday, see article and letter here

This posted 1st June 2006: A Scottish Parliament question by Richard Lochhead MSP asks where the 60% rule capacity rule (see above and below here) came from, what the status is of the rule, what criteria were used in determining it and whether there are any plans to abolish or review it. You can see the answer here, an answer which does not provide any new information and avoids all the important issues surrounding this invidious criterion which everyone refers to, and which is actively cited in closure decisions, but which no-one accepts responsibility for, or has even tried to explain or justify (see below, first entry for 17th February). Lewis Carroll, you should be alive today.

This posted 31st May 2006: The totally discredited 60% capacity rule is now being used as a benchmark by HMIE inspectors in looking at Moray to encourage further school closures. In their Report ( The Moray Council Follow-up Inspection Report, May 2006) they say the "council had made slow progress in addressing over-capacity in the primary sector and adopting principles of Best Value with a view to improving service provision".

This may make politically convenient reading and provides ammunition for politicians, both local and national, but that does not justify why these inspectors have strayed into areas of asset management, well beyond their professional competence and expertise. While HMIE (Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education in Scotland) is set up to be nominally independent, it is an Executive Agency of the Scottish Ministers directly accountable to Scottish Ministers. The Scottish Ministers are responsible for setting the policy and resources framework within which the Agency operates.

You can read reaction to the report in the Northern Scot here and the Herald here. Those who are used to the refusal on the part of any statutory body to accept reponsibility for their actions or advice in these areas (see first first posting for February 17th below) will not be surprised by HMIE's pained defence: a spokesman for HMIE in the Herald denied it was encouraging closures or mergers. "We are not giving the green light to anything. We have no view on the issue and it is a matter for the local authority to determine," she said.

But read what they actually said about need to deal with "over-capacity". If our children being educated in the schools that these people are inspecting were as cavalier in refusing to accept reponsibility for their own actions and statements, we could expect to find social workers or police knocking on our door before too long.

This posted April 11th 2006: It is not just rural schools which are threatened with closure in Scotland, the Herald caries an article (April 6th 2006) which documents how some primary schools (and their children, parents and teachers) in Glasgow are being treated in these respects. The article documents how hundreds of parents have formed an alliance against closure plans for more than two dozen primary schools. The article notes campaigners have branded the local authority's consultation process a "sham" amid claims that parents' views were not taken on board. One parent Pauline Gillgallon said: "It's the first time parents city-wide have come together. We appreciate that the population is falling, but smaller class sizes are known to be more beneficial for children. We weren't consulted, we were dictated to. We are too angry to walk away."

These same sentiments have been repeated in many rural areas in Scotland in recent years. In these respects at least, there seems to be more joining the experience of urban and rural schools in Scotland than there is dividing them

This posted March 1st 2006: The Herald today, reports on fears of school closures due to declining numbers of pupils. An economist is quoted as saying; "we have a situation where there will be big increases in public expenditure for the older group in our society through the need to fund pensions and the policy of free care for the elderly and we need to make savings. It is simply not efficient government to keep small schools open."

This sweeping generalisation about alleged inefficiency of keeping small schools open is both unjustified on economic grounds and potentially damaging on social and educational grounds. As even the Accounts Commission and Audit Scotland concede, questions of the efficiency or otherwise of small schools can only be resolved by looking at the economic, educational and social benefits and costs on a school-by-school basis.

These efficiency issues become clearer in many cases when the educational, social and economic effects of school closure on vulnerable communities are considered. When the costs and benefits of the true alternatives are compared, keeping a small school open can turn out to be the more efficient option in many cases when the full spectrum of educational performance and social and economic effects are considered, especially in fragile rural areas.

The problem with the generalisation in the Herald is that the assertion will be seized on by some interested parties as "economists say small schools are inefficient", which would of course be patent nonsense.

There is a useful balancing feature by Andrew Denholm in the same issue on the postive role played by small schools and South Lanarkshoirs council's supportive and progressive attitude towards them.

This posted February 17th 2006: the original source of the "60% rule" where schools with less than 60% of places occupied are regarded as a "realistic focus for potential rationalisation" (i.e. closure) is revealed. As noted in my Accounts Commission and School Closures paper, for years councils have been basically saying, "it's not us, the Accounts Commission / Audit Scotland are directing us to seriously explore closing schools with less than 60% places ocucupied". And where did the Accounts Commission / Audit Scotland get the 60% rule? According to a letter (18th November 2005) from the Director of Performance Audit (Audit Scotland) to Mr Richard Baker MSP, in 1995 "an advisory panel from the Association of Directors of Education suggested that schools with less than 60% of places occupied could be seen as a sensible focus for rationalisation".

In short, the Directors of Education are blaming the Accounts Commission / Audit Scotland for the 60% rule, in turn the Accounts Commission / Audit Scotland are blaming the Directors of Education for the 60% rule, no-one is accepting responsibility for it, no-one has stated on what rational basis the "rule" was devised, no-one has explained why what seems to be a number plucked out of thin air in 1995 is still being uncritically recycled unmodified today.

In my background papers above I explained why the 60% rule is arbitrary and lacks any coherent economic rationale, never mind social or political rationale. The latest revelations regarding the genesis of the rule merely help to underline these points and discredit the rule, with knock-on implications for the credibility and reputation of any agencies or bodies that continue to promote it, and, worse, act on it. Now see the next post below

This posted February 17th 2006

In their Report on Argyll and Bute Council's performance published this week, Audit Scotland states "a high proportion (around 64%) of the council's primary schools are significantly under occupied" (Para 107). "If the council is to provide education in a good environment for all its pupils it will have to make some difficult decisions weighing the costs and benefits of operating underoccupied rural schools" (Para 109). "The council still needs to take action to address the problem" (Para 109). "The council needs to produce an effective strategy to address schools that are underoccupied and in a poor state of repair" (Exhibit 9).

The message is quite clear; start an extensive and serious school closure programme again or we will come back and pillory you as a poorly managed council failing in its statutory duty. The Accounts Commission / Audit Scotland holds two positions (1) to close a school is a matter for the council to decide, not Accounts Commission / Audit Scotland, and (2) the council is failing to close schools that they should close. The fact that these two positions are essentially contradictory (as noted in background papers above) seems to be lost on Audit Scotland and the Accounts Commission.

No responsible person would argue that there are no circumstances in which a school should be closed, or deny that the council has a statutory responsibility in these regards. What is totally unacceptable and contrary to the public interest is that major social, educational changes may be forced on fragile communities through policies formulated by a mechanistic interpretation of a discredited indicator.

So Argyll and Bute can soon expect more of the traumas forced on it by the Accounts Commission / Audit Scotland previous forays in these areas in recent years, not just in Argyll and Bute but in many other parts of Scotland. It once again raises the entirely legitimate question, who audits the auditors? And should complex issues with major educational, social, economic and community implications be dictated and driven by accountants?

This posted January 14th 2006 Very welcome news from Sandy Longmuir who writes: Although the action group had been assured of its future some time ago, the council vote on the future of Arbirlot Primary School took place last night. Although the director of education included a closure option the elected members of Angus council voted to retain the school with a £70k improvement package. The leader of the council spoke at the meeting and assured the gallery that there was "a long term future for Arbirlot". Sandy also encloses two links on this, one from the Press and Journal and the other from the Courier.

This posted end December 2005 this month Channelkirk School in the Borders was reprieved from closure by Scottish Borders Council. This was due to a determined, able and well-informed campaign fought by the parents and local community and the school's Action Group to protect and maintain their school. The Group conducted a superbly organised campaign supported with comprehensive documentation. What the Group uncovered and is cited in this Borders Telegraph article raises real questions about other closure programmes, past and possibly future (as a footnote here, the council's decision and press release mentions that it took the unusual step commissioning an advocate to review its closure programme. The advocate made mention of some comments I had made on the closure programme, and my response and my original letter is here)

This posted November 21st 2005: Parents at Roy Bridge in the Highlands have offered to build their own School rather than see the existing one close. See BBC online on this here

To contact me, see column on the right

(picture at top is of Toowong Primary School in Queensland where my son was lucky enough to be taught when we visited Australia this year for several weeks. I thought it was chancing fate to put a specifically Scottish school in here when this is mostly about closures)

Capacity and School Closures

If you want to know how to close down a school (amongst other things), Spare Capacity and Public Policy tells you how to do it. See also the Accounts Commission and School Closures Working Paper.

Economics of Class size .

There has been probably more hot air and misleading statements on the issue of class sizes than anything else in this area. In fact, the conclusions from scores of economic and educational studies in this area is that the beneficial effects of small class sizes are clearest and strongest in the early years of education (results on later years are mixed), but you have to get down to class sizes of about less than 18 before the results start showing through. Small classes sizes for P1-P3 can have strong and beneficial effects particularly for disadvantaged children, teacher satisfaction and retention, and pupil performance. The effects tend to be longlasting with the initial costs and investment being paid back through subsequent gains in the quality and productivity of the labour force.

There is a very brief (one page) overview of the economics of class sizes of relevance to proposed closure of small rural schools (but also primary schools in general) here based on a summary I did in 2002.

Other good summaries are provided by the Educational Institute of Scotland, the National Literacy Trust, the Australian Educational Union, and the Manitoba Federal Government.

None of the policies on schools closures or class size being currently pursued by the Scottish Executive really respond to the wealth of detailed research on the issue of the effects of class size- utnil that is the SNP formed a new government in May 2007.

Why these strong findings on the beneficial effects of class size in the early years? That is something that is still not clear, but one point made by a headmaster was that in the early years you learn to read and in the later years you read to learn. And when you are learning the basics, that is when the occasional one-to-one with a teacher can be invaluable ... and that is one of the things that can be most obviously sacrificed or made more diffiicult in closures of small schools.

Useful links


The Scottish Parent Teacher Council or SPTC on its website claims it is "the national organization for PTAs and PAs in Scotland". Its spokesperson stated (The Herald 29th September 2005): "Children would get a much better education if they were taught in a larger primary with better resources than a much smaller one" (see Accounts Commission and School closures for discussion of this claim). Any members of PTAs or PAs whose schools are threatened with closure (especially members of SPTC) are invited to contact the SPTC to ask for the evidence for such claims and how such statements help advance the interests of these PTAs and PAs.


Petition 872 is the discussion by Public Petitions Committee of the petition by Sandy Longmuir on behalf of the Arbirlot parents group. It calls on the Scottish Parliament "to urge the Scottish Executive to introduce a legislative presumption against closure of rural schools unless there is an undeniable educational and social benefit to the children and communities affected." The convenor of the Public Petitions Committe noted that the committee considered two similar petitions—PE725 and PE753—at their meeting on 27 April 2005. On the basis of correspondence from the Minister for Education and Young People, the Committee agreed to close those two petitions. The minister made it clear that the Executive does not favour a presumption against the closure of rural schools.

Petition 175 is material submitted as a part of the original PE175 on proposed school closures in Argyll and Bute which threatened my childrens' school

Argyll and Bute Rural Schools Report was Cathy Peattie MSP's report which played the crucial role in helping suspend the closure progamme. It is pages 35-49 on this site

Petition 342 is material submitted in support of PE342 (the Parity Petition) supported by schools which included my children's school

Other documents

The Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) latest briefing note (September 8th 2006) on school closures is here.

The "Memorandum of Understanding for co-operation between HM Inspectorate of Education and the Accounts Commission for Scotland" ... is here

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