The Scotsman Tue 26 Dec 2006 Councillors fear school cuts may cost votes says report KEVIN SCHOFIELD EDUCATION CORRESPONDENT

SCOTLAND'S councillors are failing to support school closure plans because they are afraid of being punished at the ballot box by angry voters, education watchdogs have claimed.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (HMIE) said council officials were being let down by local politicians who are unwilling to respond to dwindling pupil rolls by closing schools.

The claims were contained in an HMIE report into the performance of Scotland's 32 councils.

The report's findings were dismissed by COSLA, the local authority umbrella body, which insisted that councillors were willing to take tough decisions if it was in the best interests of their communities.

A spokesman said: "The suggestion that councillors do not take the difficult decisions on school closures simply does not hold water."

The HMIE report acknowledged that plans to close schools were a "sensitive and complex issue", but said councillors should be more willing to take tough decisions.

The report said: "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 apparent slow progress in some areas cannot be attributed to signal weaknesses in planning for education provision or from failures of authorities to identify the opportunities for improved management.

"Rather, it reflects the difficulties 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 a community 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."

Sandy Longmuir, a spokesman for the Rural Schools Network, which was set up to fight school closures, said he was "deeply disappointed" with the report's conclusions, which he described as "an affront to local democracy".

He said: "They are missing the point completely. The best educational results come out of small rural schools."

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