Chapter 8: School closure consultations
114. The 2010 Act was intended to overhaul and improve the consultation process relating to various changes to schools, and to establish a presumption against closure of rural schools. The Commission examined the delivery of the 2010 Act and how this matched its intentions. A key issue is whether the Act delivers, and what is meant by, 'a presumption against closure'.
115. Although demand for 'a presumption against closure' was a crucial part of the origin of the 2010 Act and during its passage through Parliament, the 'presumption' is not explicit in the 2010 Act. Instead, Parliament passed legislation which aimed to deliver this through compliance with specific requirements. This has meant that the meaning and impact of 'a presumption against closure' under the 2010 Act has been unclear and divisive for communities and local authorities. It has left a gap between high expectations from communities that rural schools enjoy a very high level of protection; and local authorities seeking to meet the letter of the requirements in the 2010 Act and not a wider 'presumption'.
116. The Commission considers that a clearly agreed interpretation of 'a presumption against closure' set out in the statutory guidance accompanying the 2010 Act would reduce conflict and provide clarity and protection for communities and local authorities. The Commission suggests that 'a presumption against closure' requires that proposals to close rural schools should require a strong, positive case for closure following revised guidance on the 2010 Act. The presumption against closure is delivered through compliance with all relevant aspects of the 2010 Act including particularly the matters of "special regard" (see below). In the Commission's view, a closure proposal should:
- Demonstrate that the matters of "special regard" have been fully considered before consulting on closure;
- Provide a clear Educational Benefits Statement setting out the educational benefits and demonstrating that there is no educational detriment 17 ; and
- Set out a clear, rigorous analysis of the resource implications of the proposal.
A new, clearer understanding of 'a presumption against closure' should be set out by the Scottish Government in the statutory guidance accompanying the 2010 Act to reduce conflict and provide clarity and protection for communities and local authorities.
Matters of special regard
117. The 2010 Act establishes three tests or matters of "special regard" - factors which the education authority is required to consider in proposing the closure of a rural school. Proper consideration of these is intended to deliver 'the presumption against closure'. Some of the difficulties with the Act have arisen where an authority was perceived to have given these only cursory consideration or to have left consideration to take place through the closure consultation rather than ahead of it. This is unsatisfactory and the Commission recommends that clearer statutory guidance is provided to ensure a more thorough and uniform approach to these. This should ensure that the matters of "special regard" are given full consideration before conducting a closure consultation under the 2010 Act so that this consultation can be on the local authority's conclusions in relation to each matter.
Section 12(3) of the 2010 Act, establishes three factors to which an education authority is required to have special regard. These are:
(3) (a) any viable alternative to the closure proposal,
(b) the likely effect on the local community in consequence of the proposal (if implemented),
(c) the likely effect caused by any different travelling arrangements that may be required in consequence of the proposal (if implemented).
"any viable alternative to the closure proposal"
118. It seems clear that a rigorous, high quality assessment of '"viable alternatives" is required. In the view of the Commission, when considering alternatives, the proposal to keep the school open should always be included. The Commission understands that a closure proposal is often only made as a last resort and when the local authority sees no option to keep the school open. However, to exclude the possibility of keeping it open at this critical stage amounts to a presumption in favour of closure.
119. It is important to involve the community in this assessment of "viable alternatives", giving them confidence in this assessment and the opportunity to bring other factors into account.
Communities making schools viable (1)
In 2008, Angus Council proposed the closure of a small rural primary school. One of the reasons given for closing the school was that the children were unable to take part in adequate PE lessons as the community hall, where the lessons had previously taken place, had become unsafe. Having taken account of the views of the school community, the decision was taken to keep the school open.
Following a campaign by the local community, including school pupils, funds were raised to replace the hall. The funding came from a range of sources including the Scottish Rural Development Programme, SportScotland, Angus Council, charitable trusts and local benefactors.
The new hall opened in 2010 and is run by a community association. It is used by the community for a range of activities including yoga, art classes and coffee mornings. The school continues to have strong links with the local community and makes use of the hall for PE, drama productions and is involved in the community café which operates from the building
Communities making schools viable (2)
In 2003, Scottish Borders Council proposed the closure of one of its rural schools. In response, the local community suggested that the council refurbish the school building and they would raise the funds to build a new community centre adjacent to it, including a hall which the school could lease.
The local authority agreed to delay the closure to give the community the chance to raise the necessary funds for the community centre. Once the community had secured the necessary £1.8m funding for the hall, funding to refurbish the school was provided by Scottish Borders Council and the community and local authority worked together to deliver both projects.
The community facility opened in late 2011. It provides hall space for the refurbished school and allows school meals to be prepared in its kitchen. The pre-school and after-school clubs have now relocated to the centre whilst the community has benefited from a new space to host activities and groups.
The project has helped secure the future of not only the school but the whole community.
"the likely effect on the local community in consequence of the proposal (if implemented)"
120. Much concern around rural school closure centres around the consequences for the local community, through losing its local school. This is an area which would benefit from stronger statutory guidance to ensure that local authorities make a careful assessment of the wider impact of a school closure and commit to any appropriate mitigating action to address negative community impacts. The research recommended earlier ( Recommendation 11) should also help understand the likely community impact of a proposal.
"the likely effect caused by any different travelling arrangements that may be required in consequence of the proposal (if implemented)"
121. The Commission suggests that no decision to require a child to travel a greater distance to school should be taken lightly and that careful consideration of children's wellbeing is essential, with a focus on minimising travel and waiting time. Moreover, it is important to develop innovative solutions to ensure that children at a further distance from the school are not excluded from after-school activities. Most local authorities have their own guidelines on maximum travel times and it is appropriate that these are set locally taking into account local circumstances. The Commission recommends that all local authorities clearly articulate travel policies and allow it to be debated locally.
Clearer statutory guidance should be provided to ensure a more thorough and uniform approach to the matters of special regard, ensuring that these are given full consideration before conducting a closure consultation under the 2010 Act so that this consultation is on the local authority's conclusions in relation to each matter.
When considering alternatives during a closure proposal, the local authority should always include keeping the school open as an option.
All local authorities should clearly articulate their travel policy for school pupils and allow it to be debated locally on a regular basis.
Carse of Gowrie
Where requested by a community, Shetland Islands Council commissions socio-economic studies, as part of its statutory consultation, to assess the likely impact of a school closure on a community. The studies are undertaken by an external consultant to ensure they are perceived as independent and objective. They look at factors including the economy of the area, the known and potential impacts of closing the school and any mitigating actions which could be taken should the school close. The studies also provide an estimate of any financial savings associated with the school closure.
The studies draw on previous research by Shetland Islands Council and other organisations but also include information obtained from the local community through visits and discussions.
A socio-economic study allows Shetland Islands Council to have a more informed understanding of the potential impact of a school closure and it has been suggested that communities find the studies helpful as an independent assessment of the likely effects of the school closure proposal.
122. The Commission does not underestimate the effort that completing all aspects of a closure consultation entails for a local authority and the investment of officers' time and potential delay entailed by carrying out such procedures. However, the clear lesson from closure experiences across Scotland is that taking the time to conduct a high quality consultation is crucial in achieving an outcome that satisfies local authority and community. The Commission would emphasise that local authorities should make every effort possible to persuade parents of the positive educational impact of the proposals and that closure proposals are much more likely to succeed where the authority has parental support. Achieving that support is likely to mean having a clear, openly articulated argument and being prepared to enter into a debate about it with the possibility of compromise or reaching a different conclusion.
The Highland Council has introduced a process of dialogue with communities to discuss the benefits and impacts of potential changes to the provision of education. This dialogue focuses on educational benefits and "putting our children's education first". It is undertaken in advance of any decision to carry out the consultation process required under the 2010 Act.
Following a high-level review of the school estate, analysis of options is undertaken at a local level. Proposals for changes to the school estate are discussed with councillors, head teachers, parents and community groups, giving them the opportunity to offer their views and put forward ideas of their own. Head teachers often involve staff and pupils. Proposals are then assessed for educational and community impact and a separate financial analysis undertaken.
The results of this process guide which proposals are taken forward to statutory consultation and the information gathered can also be used to support the statutory consultation process, especially the Educational Benefits Statement. The local authority has found that that this dialogue helps ensure more meaningful community engagement in any subsequent statutory consultation.
123. School campaigners are increasingly informed and rigorous in examining proposals and supporting communities across the country. Attempts by local authorities to cut corners are unlikely to pay off and can lead to a loss of trust. Sustainable, integrated and empowered communities are unlikely to exist without high quality, integrated decision making processes that involve all the relevant parties and information.
124. There are serious concerns that the standard of consultation and accuracy of information provided has often been poor. The Commission noted the suggestion that there should be independent oversight of consultation processes. On balance, this could add a significant burden and bureaucracy to a process that is already onerous, and should be the responsibility of local authorities. There is provision within the 2010 Act relating to provision of accurate information but the Commission noted some concerns that this had not achieved its aim.
125. Many local authorities choose to conduct 'informal' consultation ahead of statutory consultation. This is a valuable part of the consultation process and provides a good opportunity to air and receive comments on the matters of special regard and to increase community confidence in this part of the process. If done well, it should avoid concerns communities often raise around lack of transparency; not having the information they required; and reliance on misleading information. However, it can be challenging to deliver informal consultation effectively, with communities easily put on 'high alert' and debate quickly becoming heated.
126. Guidance on the benefits, purpose and delivery of informal consultation, as well as a clearer definition such as 'pre-statutory' consultation would help ensure it played the positive role it could do and was not seen as an optional or minimal requirement.
The Scottish Government and local government should review section 5 (Correction of the paper) of the 2010 Act, with a view to providing clear statutory guidance on the minimum information to be provided by local authorities and addressing issues that arise during a consultation.
There should be stronger guidance on how to undertake informal consultation, and a clear expectation that this is an important and effective preparation for statutory consultation. A new title such as 'pre-statutory' consultation would make this clearer.
Reviews of more than one school
127. It has been interesting to note the advantages and disadvantages of carrying out a review of more than one school simultaneously and where the review sometimes covers a wide area of a local authority's school estate or even its entirety. This can be a successful, fair and transparent approach, where it gives all communities a clear understanding of the issues facing their schools and the local authority's plans for them. It is difficult for a community to accept losing its school and concern about future threats to the neighbouring school can be very damaging to confidence in current proposals. An approach that balances one or more school closures with a strengthened commitment to the remaining estate, whether accompanied by new buildings or not, is a helpful and mature debate to have with communities. It can also reduce the feeling that particular schools are earmarked for closure or that reviews are only about closure. Nonetheless, such approaches are still often hotly contested by communities.
128. However, a wider review process can be negative, where it is not conducted thoroughly, with attention to detail for each individual school or where the focus is only on closure. It can also increase the complexity of understanding the options for each school.
129. It will be a decision for a local authority whether to review a narrow or wide part of its school estate. The Commission would recommend that whichever approach is taken, it is essential that sufficient attention to detail is taken in order that communities can have confidence in both the specifics regarding their school and the local authority's wider plans and commitments.
Local authorities should ensure that all school closure consultations receive sufficient attention to detail, in order that communities have confidence in both the specifics regarding their school and the local authority's wider plans and commitments.
Transparent triggers for reviewing the continued viability of a rural school
Scottish Borders Council has developed a process with transparent trigger points which initiate the review of a small school in its area. This is distinct from the consultation required by law to change a school's status, location or to close it.
A school normally faces a review if it meets two or more specified triggers. These include: a reduction in the number of teachers it requires, a roll that is forecast to fall below 13 pupils in the next three years, an operating cost that is three or more times higher than the authority average, an occupancy level of 45% or less, a significant decline in pupil performance or if the school needs urgent and unavoidable investment which is considered disproportionate.
A small school review aims to be an open and inclusive process. Parents, staff and community members are invited to participate in the review process. They have access to all evidence put forward by the authority and may challenge the information provided and submit their own data to be considered.
Scottish Borders Council considers that early investigation of roll forecasts, changing catchment areas or novel methods of operation demonstrates an approach intended to help support and sustain small rural schools.
Frequent reviews of the same school
130. It is constructive for a local authority to conduct regular reviews of its school estate, and to have close and ongoing engagement with communities and schools over issues concerning them. For schools with low, falling rolls those discussions may include the viability of the school.
131. However, the Commission heard clear evidence of some schools facing repeated closure proposals at short intervals, and this repetition had a corrosive impact on the communities and schools concerned. Thus repeated closure proposals can lead to diminishing rolls and make closure more likely as parents avoid placing their child in a school perceived to be at high risk of closure.
132. To reduce this, it would be appropriate, once the full process under the 2010 Act has been exhausted and it has been decided not to close a school, to give that school and the parents and pupils concerned a breathing space to operate without feeling that this substantial threat may reappear at any moment.
133. Unless a significant relevant change occurred, the Commission would recommend that local authorities make no further closure proposal for at least five years.
Once a school closure proposal has undergone full consideration under the 2010 Act and agreement is reached not to close the school, local authorities should make no further closure proposal for at least five years unless there is a significant relevant change.
Five years moratoriums
In the Scottish Borders Council area, if a school is subject to statutory consultation on closure but the decision is taken not to close it, the Council will be asked to exempt the school from statutory consultation on closure for five years.
This policy aims to give a community certainty on a school's future. The local authority was aware that a school subject to continuous threat of closure can have difficulty in attracting and retaining pupils, leading to a spiral of decline. The Scottish Borders Council has indicated that the policy of having at least five years between consultations on closure proposals has enabled it to have more meaningful discussions with the community about supporting a school and has helped to build trust.
In the past, Moray Council had a policy of undertaking reviews of the viability of schools where the roll fell below 60% and, following a decision not to proceed towards closure, schools were given a five year 'moratorium' before they could face further review. This 'moratorium' was introduced to avoid schools being repeatedly reviewed for closure which would have an impact on teacher morale and could adversely affect pupil numbers.
However, the local authority found that whilst this provided a period of security for individual schools it hampered more strategic consideration of the school estate. For this reason individual reviews based on the 60% threshold ceased several years ago and Moray Council has recently decided to conduct a strategic review of all its schools.
Consulting children and young people
134. An important aspect of school closure consultations is how the children and young people affected are consulted. Children and young people have a right to be consulted on proposals that affect them, and there is a guidance booklet, Participants not Pawns, 18 provided by the Commissioner for Children and Young People on how to do this under the 2010 Act.
135. The Commission heard evidence of the concern and stress school consultations can cause for children and young people. The Commission emphasises the responsibility of local authorities, schools and parents to minimise this, dealing sensitively and appropriately with young people's concerns, taking into account their views and reassuring them regarding the proposals. Some of the proposals in this report should reduce the likelihood of sudden and unexpected consultations, and of repeated consultations during a child's schooling.
Local authorities should ensure that all school closure consultations include appropriate consultation with children and young people and use the results of these exercises in their statutory consultation.