Council set to clash with Government on schools

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ABERDEENSHIRE Council’s ruling administration appears to have set itself on a collision course with the Scottish Government, after the chair of the administration’s education committee refused to rule out school closures before next June.

Cllr Richard Stroud, chair of the Education, Learning and Leisure Committee, gave the response in a series of one-word written answers to East Garioch Councillor Martin Ford.

In a further written answer, he confirmed that the council would also press ahead with its own criteria on deciding whether schools should be closed, without waiting for the outcome of the Scottish Government’s Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education.

The news came as Aberdeenshire’s ruling Lib Dem/Conservative administration referred bids to alter the procedure for recommending school closures to the Council’s Procedures Committee for further consideration.

The move thwarted an attempt by the SNP group to move the final say on any school closures to the full council, and a move by the Democratic Independent Group to allow the Education Committee to express formally its own views.

After the SNP move was defeated by 30 votes to 25, Peterhead South & Cruden SNP councillor Stephen Smith said: “When decisions have to be made on such important and emotive issues as potential school closures, we feel it is important that the full council has the final say. All elected members of the council should have the opportunity to express a view and be involved in the decision-making process.

“Currently, that rests with the Policy & Resources Committee, which has only 14 members. The Education, Leisure & Learning Committee also has only 14 councillors on it so it is sensible to have the full council decide such matters.

“I’m disappointed that the council’s ruling Liberal Democrat/Tory coalition didn’t see fit to support this common-sense proposal, which would have increased local democracy.”

Earlier, SNP councillors had met with Education Secretary Mike Russell to discuss rural schools and the Scottish Government’s request for a moratorium on further closures. Afterwards, Mr Russell said

“The meeting with Cllr Strathdee and her colleagues was very productive. The Commission on Rural Education will play a vital role in helping us better recognise the very specific challenges that can face Scotland’s rural communities and the role of many rural schools in providing the focal point for a whole community and ensuring better life chances. I look forward to the Commission being formally established in the near future”.

Education committee vice-chair, Cllr Isobel Davidson, defended the decision to refer matters to the procedures committee.

“I think this is the correct way to go, she said. “It should be reviewed with an open mind.

“The scheme of delegation has to come back to full council twice anyway – once for discussion and then for it to be voted on.

“I think the education committee should have significant input into any decisions taken by the Policy and Resources Committee. Making those kinds of decisions at a full council could be difficult.”

However, Cllr Martin Ford dismissed as ‘nonsense’ at the meeting the administration’s argument that it was too difficult a decision to take at full council. He said: “My motion is a statement of principle. Far from being complicated, it’s very simple.

“Is it right - essential, actually - that the Council’s education committee has a formal say on whether to close a school?

“Clearly, ‘Yes’. So the council should say so - and say so today. The exact wording changes required can then be brought forward by officers for the council’s agreement.”

Speaking afterwards, Cllr Ford said: “Once again, the council’s administration have ducked a simple question - a proposal they should have been able to strongly endorse.

“Parents and others concerned about the future of our schools should have been given a clear statement that the council accepted its procedures were wrong, and that the education committee would get to make a recommendation in any future consideration of whether to close a school. Instead, all we have is a decision not to make a decision.”

Councillors Ford and Johnston also tabled written questions relating to school closures for the full council meeting. In line with the council’s standing orders, these and the answers given were printed in the agenda. No debate is allowed on written questions and the answers given.

Commenting on the answers given, Cllr Paul Johnston said, “These answers amount to a two-fingered gesture from the Council to the education secretary.”