Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures - September 2008

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Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures - September 2008
September 2008

Improving Consultation
on Rural School Closures
Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures - September 2008
About the Scottish Consumer Council                      The SCC assesses the consumer perspective in any
                                                         situation by analysing the position of consumers
The Scottish Consumer Council (SCC) was set up           against a set of consumer principles.
by government in 1975. Our purpose is to promote
the interests of consumers in Scotland, with             These are:
particular regard to those people who experience
disadvantage in society. While producers of
goods and services are usually well-organised and        Can consumers actually get the goods or services
articulate when protecting their own interests,          they need or want?
individual consumers very often are not. The people
whose interests we represent are consumers of
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all kinds: they may be patients, tenants, parents,
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solicitors’ clients, public transport users, or simply
shoppers in a supermarket.                               INFORMATION
Consumers benefit from efficient and effective           Do consumers have the information they need,
services in the public and private sectors. Service-     presented in the way they want, to make informed
providers benefit from discriminating consumers. A       choices?
balanced partnership between the two is essential
and the SCC seeks to develop this partnership by:
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consultation with the First Minister. Martyn Evans,
the SCC’s Director, leads the staff team.
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Published by
The Scottish Consumer Council
September 2008

Written by Linda Nicholson,
The Research Shop with
conclusions by Jennifer
Wallace, SCC
ISBN 978-0-9556496-8-4
Chairs Preface

The local school plays a critical role in rural communities. It is unsurprising that when faced with possible
closure, parents and others want to defend the school and its place within the community. There are
clearly cases where it is in the best interests of children to close a school but it is important that all
stakeholders are able to voice concerns and have them considered.

It has been over twenty years since the legislation and regulations that govern school closures were
established. During that time much has changed in terms of what is expected from schools and the
education system. Parents, pupils and community members have also changed, with many now expecting
and demanding that they play an active part in the decision-making process. It is clear that the current
procedures fail to ensure that the voice of parents, pupils and other community members is heard
effectively in the decision-making process.

Some of the difficulties arise from the legislative framework itself, which give only 28 days for consultation
despite a widespread acceptance of 12 weeks as good practice. And the omission of children from the
list of statutory consultees indicates that the legislation has failed to keep up to date with other policy
developments such as children’s rights.

Underneath the problems with the statutory framework are a range of difficulties that arise from a shortage
of expertise amongst council staff in carrying out consultations on contentious subjects such as school
closure plans. If councils are to improve the consultation experience they must invest in improving the
skills and capacity of the staff involved.

Our investigation into rural school closure consultations has shown that the decision-making criteria
are often unclear. There is a perception that councils prioritise financial arguments over parent and
community members’ views on the impact of the school closure on the education of their children and
the community as a whole. The Scottish Government should provide a clearer indication of the priority
it expects to be given to different factors in a rural school closure decision.

We also found that in addition to the time taken to respond to consultations, parents and community
groups often ‘put their hands in their pockets’ to fund expert advice and support. We would welcome a
duty being placed on councils to provide funding to parents and communities to access support.

We are publishing this report during the Scottish Government’s consultation on ‘Safeguarding our Rural
Schools and Improving School Consultation Procedures’. We hope that the Scottish Government takes
account of our findings and in doing so, develops a framework for rural school closure consultations that
will ensure a stronger voice for parents, pupils and community members.

Douglas Sinclair

The Scottish Consumer Council would like to take this opportunity to thank the following:
• Linda Nicholson, Director of The Research Shop for conducting the research on which this report is
• parents and community members who took part in discussion sessions;
• the Scottish Rural Schools Network for assistance in identifying parent and community members;
• council officials who were interviewed as part of the research.

The Housing, Education and Local Government Committee of the Scottish Consumer Council oversaw
this research. The members of the group at that time were: Ann Clark (Chair), Martyn Evans (ex-officio),
Jon Harris, Ashok Khindria, Drew Ratter and Douglas Sinclair (ex-officio).

   About Consumer Focus Scotland
   Consumer Focus Scotland will start work in October 2008. Consumer Focus Scotland was formed
   through the merger of three organisations – the Scottish Consumer Council, energywatch Scotland,
   and Postwatch Scotland. Douglas Sinclair is Chair of the Board of Consumer Focus Scotland, and
   Martyn Evans has been appointed as its Director.

   Consumer Focus Scotland will work to secure a fair deal for consumers in both private markets
   and public services, by promoting fairer markets, greater value for money, and improved customer
   service. While producers of goods and services are usually well-organised and articulate when
   protecting their own interests, individual consumers very often are not. The people whose interests
   we represent are consumers of all kinds: they may be patients, tenants, parents, solicitors’ clients,
   public transport users, or shoppers in a supermarket.

   We have a commitment to work on behalf of vulnerable consumers, particularly in the energy and
   post sectors, and a duty to work on issues of sustainable development.

                                 Consumer Focus Scotland
                 Royal Exchange House • 100 Queen Street • Glasgow • G1 3DN
                                 Telephone 0141 226 5261

   1. Introduction and Aims                                                 1
   2. Method                                                                2

   Part One: Context for School Closure Consultations                       5
   3. Legislative Framework                                                 5
   4. Recent Contextual Developments                                        7
   5. Wider Context of School Closure Consultations                        8
      Highlighted by Research Evidence
   6. Wider Context of Other Public Policy-Making                          12
      Consultations Highlighted by Research Evidence

   Part Two: Evidence from Case Studies                                    17
   7. Was the Consultation ‘Genuine’?                                      18
   8. Communication Issues                                                 24
   9. Consultation Criteria                                                28
   10. Handling Consultation Data                                          33
   11. Issues Associated with Informal Consultation                        38
   12. Political Issues                                                    41
   13. Views on the Proposals in the Current                               43
       Scottish Government Consultation

   Part Three: Conclusions                                                 45
   14. Discussion and Recommendations                                      45

   References                                                              48

   Annex 1 Databases and websites searched for the literature review       50
   Annex 2 Letter sent to Directors of Education in the case study areas   51
   Annex 3 Council official core interview schedule                        53
   Annex 4 Case study consultee core group discussion schedule             55
1. Introduction and Aims

Information on the number of schools closed in                         Responding to these concerns, the Scottish
Scotland since 1995 shows a high proportion of                         Government issued a consultation on proposals
rural1 schools amongst these. Between 1995                             for changes to the legislation on safeguarding
and 2005, 92 of the 299 primary, secondary and                         rural schools and school consultation procedures
special schools closed in Scotland were in rural                       (Scottish Government, 2008). A central proposal
areas, constituting just under one-third of all                        is to create a ‘presumption against closure’ of
school closures2. Between 1998 and 2006 rural                          rural schools, by which the Scottish Government
schools in Scotland closed at an average of eight                      means to create a system whereby all possible
per year, compared with England where, since the                       alternatives to closures have been explored and
introduction of the presumption against closure                        all the likely adverse implications have been
in 1998 only three rural schools have closed on                        identified. School closures would therefore be a
average per year3.                                                     last resort.

Key drivers promoting the Scottish local authority                     The Scottish Consumer Council seeks to encourage
decisions to close rural schools include falling                       consumer-friendly consultation mechanisms and
school rolls, increasing deterioration of old school                   wishes to ensure that any future legislation on
buildings, and the need for councils to make                           school closure decisions promotes effective and
efficient use of resources across their school                         useful mechanisms for consultation between
estate. There are clearly cases where it is in the                     local authorities and local communities. To
best interests of children to close a school and                       this end, they commissioned this research to
many parents recognise this reality. However,                          provide evidence on the experiences and views
proposals to close a rural school tends to result                      of relevant local authority officials and local
in much local opposition, with closure generally                       communities on the effectiveness and quality of
resulting in former pupils transferring to a larger                    the current consultation regulations and possible
school, located in a less remote settlement.                           improvements.

Prior to closing a rural school local authorities are                  The research aimed:
obliged by statute to consult on their proposal.                       • to identify relevant literature on school closures,
Over recent years, the issue of closure of rural                         with a particular focus on rural schools;
schools has stimulated much campaigning to
save local schools and also various Parliamentary                      • to explore current consultation mechanisms
debates. However, in addition to campaigning to                          used by local councils;
retain their local school, many consultees have                        • to explore the experience of parents and
highlighted what they perceive to be difficulties                        community members where a rural school has
with the consultation process itself. Despite                            been closed or threatened with closure; and
the existence of a framework of legislation and
                                                                       • to recommend what should be included as
guidance to steer local authorities in discharging
                                                                         consultation criteria for rural school closures.
their obligation to consult on closure proposals, it
has been argued that such guidance is ambiguous
                                                                       This report documents the research process
in places and requires reform (e.g. Fraser, 2008).
                                                                                                                               Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures

                                                                       (Chapter 2) and findings on key themes to
Indeed, MSPs have repeatedly raised concerns in
                                                                       emerge from semi-structured group interviews
Parliament about the quality of the consultation
                                                                       with consultees and in-depth interviews with
associated with school closures (Georghiou, 2006).
                                                                       relevant council officials (Chapters 3–13). On the
                                                                       basis of this evidence, the SCC makes a number
1   Rural areas in Scotland are currently classified by the Scottish
    Government as settlements of fewer than 3,000 people.              of recommendations to the Scottish Government
2   Peter Peacock (2006) Written answer to question S2W-28604 by       (Chapter 14).
    Lord James Douglas-Hamilton Edinburgh: Scottish Parliament
3   Memoranda submitted to meeting of Environment, Food and
    Rural Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, DfES and
    Defra, 8 April 2003.

2. Method

                                                  There were two main elements to the methodological      2.2 Case Studies
                                                  approach, a literature review and an examination
                                                  of case studies.                                        Four case studies were identified and examined
                                                                                                          in order to explore the issue of consultation over
                                                                                                          school closures in more depth. The areas were
                                                  2.1 Literature Review                                   selected primarily to provide a range of:

                                                  The focus of the literature review was on the           • geographical area
                                                  consultation mechanisms used by Scottish local          • local authority
                                                  authorities when consulting on proposed school
                                                                                                          • size.
                                                  closures, and the issues associated with their use.
                                                  As stated previously, over recent years MSPs and
                                                                                                          In addition, the case studies needed to be relatively
                                                  others have repeatedly raised concerns about the
                                                                                                          recent, while ensuring that the consultation process
                                                  quality of such consultation. The review sought
                                                                                                          had been completed and final decisions had been
                                                  to identify the nature and strength of the main
                                                                                                          taken. Each area had to be classified as rural under
                                                  causes of concern.
                                                                                                          the Scottish Government’s classification system,
                                                                                                          with two case studies resulting in a closure of the
                                                  Previous scoping work in this field suggested
                                                                                                          school and the other two schools remaining open
                                                  that existing research literature is very limited,
                                                                                                          following consultation. All were classified as small
                                                  with the bulk of material confined to Government
                                                                                                          schools (pupil roll under 100). For the purposes
                                                  and Parliamentary documentation associated
                                                                                                          of the research and its short timescale, there also
                                                  with relevant legislation, and anecdotal evidence
                                                                                                          needed to be some indication that documentation
                                                  collated by members of organisations such as the
                                                                                                          on the consultation process and issues arising may
                                                  Scottish Rural Schools Network (SRSN).
                                                                                                          still be readily available to the researcher.
                                                  Against this background, a three-fold approach to
                                                                                                          These criteria served to narrow the options for case
                                                  the literature review was adopted:
                                                                                                          studies to primary schools in the state sector. The
                                                  • personal contact with relevant stakeholders to        actual case studies have been anonymised but
                                                    seek their help in identifying material for review.   displayed the following characteristics (table 1).
                                                    These included Government researchers and
                                                  • a search for relevant Government and
                                                    Parliamentary literature; and
                                                  • a search of conventional relevant databases for
                                                    empirical research evidence.

                                                  As expected, the first approach served largely to
                                                  confirm the absence of previous research in this
                                                  field. The second approach established the current
Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures

                                                  legislative framework within which consultation on
                                                  proposed school closures must operate. The final
                                                  approach generated a limited body of material for
                                                  review in this paper. The databases and websites
                                                  searched for the purposes of this review are listed
                                                  in Annex 1.

Table 1: Case Studies Selected for Inclusion in the Study
                              Individual school                                      School roll at
                                                                                                        Year of outcome of
                                 or group of                     Status             the time of the
                                                                                                         the consultation
                                  schools?                                           consultation*
 Case Study 1                   Individual school           Remained open              Around 50               2005
 Case Study 2                   Individual school                Closed                Under 20                2007
 Case Study 3                   Individual school           Remained open              Under 20                2006
                                                                 Closed           Various: from under    Between 2004 and
 Case Study 4                   Group of schools
                                                                                    20 to around 50           2006
*This figure was subject to slight changes over the period of the consultation

Of the four case studies selected, one involved a                       2.2.2 Interviews with local authority officials
group of primary schools. Another comprised only
informal consultation, with no formal statutory                         A letter (see Annex 2) was sent by the Scottish
procedure reached before the final decision.                            Consumer Council to the Director of Education
                                                                        in each of the case study council areas inviting
                                                                        their participation in an interview for the research
2.2.1 Examination of relevant documentation                             in which their views and reflections on the
                                                                        consultation mechanisms they were required to
For each case study, relevant documentation                             follow would be explored. Each of the Directors of
associated with the consultation period was                             Education responded positively to the invitation,
located via:                                                            nominating either themselves or another relevant
• contact with previous consultees                                      official(s) to participate.
• searching the local authority and relevant
  campaigning group websites                                            Nominated council officials were offered either
                                                                        a face-to-face or a telephone interview at a time
• contact with the Scottish Rural Schools                               convenient to them, and were sent by email an
  Network.                                                              outline of the key topics which would be raised for
                                                                        discussion in the interview.
In each case efforts were made to locate the
communication from councils indicating the                              In total, five council officials across the four
start of the formal consultation period, key                            case studies were interviewed for the research,
rebuttal statements submitted from community                            three by telephone and two face-to-face. Two
groups in response to the proposal to close their                       were Directors of Education, one was Director of
school, records of public meetings held, and the                        Communications, with the remaining two being
final council report on the consultation and its                        the Senior Manager and Education Officer within
recommendation to council members. Although                             a council at the time of their respective case study
most of this information was readily available,                         consultation.
given the time between the consultation and the
current research and the updating of websites, it                       A core interview schedule was developed based
was perhaps inevitable that full documentation for                      on issues arising from the literature review, and
                                                                                                                               Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures

every area was not always accessible.                                   customised as appropriate to reflect issues to
                                                                        emerge in the examination of each case study’s
The documentation to hand was examined with                             documentation. The core schedule is in Annex 3.
a view to identifying procedures and approaches                         Interviews were conducted based on this schedule,
taken by the local authority in conducting the rural                    but with flexibility for interviewees to raise their
school closure consultation (whether informal or                        own issues for discussion as appropriate.
formal), and informing subsequent community and
council official interview schedules.

The duration of each interview was between 40          In two of the case studies the interviews arranged
                                                  minutes and 75 minutes. Each was audio-taped           with Directors of Education did not go to plan due
                                                  and subsequently transcribed in preparation for        to double-booking of the Director’s engagements
                                                  analysis.                                              in one area and unexpected unavailability in the
                                                                                                         other. In the latter event, another relevant official
                                                                                                         was interviewed. In the former, the Director agreed
                                                  2.2.3 Group interviews with parents and                to a shortened interview in the time available.
                                                  other consultees
                                                                                                         It is within this context that the analysis of the
                                                  Contact details of previous consultees and             research findings has taken place.
                                                  organisers of the campaigning groups in each
                                                  case study area were obtained from the Scottish
                                                  Rural Schools Network with the agreement of
                                                  the relevant personnel. Contact was made via
                                                  telephone and/or email and their assistance
                                                  requested in organising small groups of former
                                                  consultees who would be willing and available
                                                  to discuss their school closure consultation
                                                  experience. Each of these contacts agreed to
                                                  undertake this organising role or forwarded details
                                                  of other people who were happy to take part. Five
                                                  meetings were subsequently arranged with former
                                                  consultees, one in each of three of the case studies
                                                  and two in the fourth.

                                                  A core group discussion schedule was developed
                                                  for the meetings, with this customised depending
                                                  on the specific circumstances of the case study.
                                                  This core schedule is in Annex 4. Each group
                                                  discussion was audio-taped and conducted in
                                                  around one and a half hours. The tapes were
                                                  subsequently transcribed in preparation for

                                                  2.3 Research Issues Relating to the Quality
                                                  of the Data Collected

                                                  Although every effort was made to establish the
                                                  validity and accuracy of the evidence presented by
                                                  both council officials and consultees respectively
                                                  in the research process, it was perhaps inevitable
                                                  that given the length of time to elapse since the
                                                  consultations had taken place, and the lack of
                                                  a comprehensive audit trail of documents in all
Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures

                                                  cases, some reliance has had to be placed on
                                                  interviewees’ recollection of events. In addition,
                                                  both consultees and council officials made a
                                                  number of generalisations and accusations during
                                                  interviews which although acknowledged as
                                                  legitimate in terms of strongly held views, cannot
                                                  be used as evidence within this research report in
                                                  the absence of any hard data to support them.

Part One: Context For School Closure Consultations

3. Legislative Framework

3.1 Legislation and Guidance                         Despite much contention on the issue of
                                                     school closures over the years, this legislative
The legislative framework and guidance on school     framework has remained the same. With regard
closures is well documented and set out clearly in   to consultation, there have been many calls from
texts such as Georghiou’s (2006) SPICe briefing      both members of the public and politicians for
to the Scottish Parliament. Both legislative         revisions to the guidance. The concerns raised
requirements and recommendations for good            prompted the publication of further guidance by
practice have been established.                      the Scottish Executive in the form of its Circular
                                                     2/2004 to local authorities, ‘Additional Guidance
                                                     on Local Authority Proposals for the School Estate,
 In brief, the process to be followed by education   including School Closures’. Without changing
 authorities when considering school closures
                                                     previous guidance, this document sets out a
 is contained in the Education (Scotland) Act
                                                     framework of roles and responsibilities of those
 1980 S.22. The Scottish Office Education
                                                     who are considering making changes to the school
 Department Circulars No. 1074 (1981) and No.
 1174 (1988) outline legislative requirements and
                                                     estate. On the issue of consultation, the guidance
 also recommend good practice. The statutory         states:
 basis for consultation is further laid out in the
 Statutory Instrument 1981 No. 1551 (S.159) The        Consultation is key to this whole process. If
 Education (Publication and Consultation etc)          the process commands respect then, for the
 (Scotland) Regulations (amended by 1987 SI No.        great majority of people, so will the outcome.
 2076; 1988 SI No. 107; and 1989 SI No. 1739).         Experience and ‘good practice’ both dictate
                                                       that there should be a real emphasis here on
 The 1981 Regulations stipulate that an education
                                                       both the quality and quantity of consultation.
 authority must consult when there is a proposal
                                                       The emphasis should be on more consultation,
 to close down a school, to change the site of a
                                                       more information, more time, rather than less;
 school or to provide a new school. They specify
                                                       a fuller process rather than the minimum
 who should be consulted:
                                                       required to comply with the legislation.
 • the parent of every pupil attending the school
   affected by the proposal;                         The guidance also outlines clearly the role of
 • the parent of every child known to the            Scottish Ministers in school closures, emphasising
   authority and who would be expected to            their lack of power to intervene in education
   attend the school, or stage of education to be    authority proposals bar specific circumstances:
   discontinued, within two years from the date
   of the proposal;
                                                     • where the school’s roll exceeds 80% of its
 • the Parent Councils or Combined Parent              capacity;
   Councils; and
                                                     • where primary pupils would have to attend an
                                                                                                           Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures

 • the church, or denominational body, in              alternative school five or more miles distant
   whose interest the school is conducted, if          from their present one (10 or more miles in the
   appropriate.                                        case of secondary school pupils); or
 A minimum of 28 days for consultation with          • in certain circumstances, where there is
 parents is specified. Any meeting held by the         a proposed change to the provision of
 education authority to explain the proposals to       denominational education in an area.
 parents must be held at least 14 days after the
 date by which parents were first informed of the
 proposal to close the school.

Continued concerns about the way in which              Parliamentary debates, motions lodged by MSPs
                                                  some local authorities appeared to have been           and public petitions to the Scottish Parliament
                                                  interpreting the guidance on school closures, and      over recent years have also pointed to concern
                                                  in particular the quality and level of consultation    over the robustness of the current framework
                                                  undertaken, contributed to the development             in relation to involvement of communities and
                                                  of further guidance on consultative practice in        parents in school closure decision-making. For
                                                  COSLA’s 2006 School Estates Management Good            example, a recurring criticism of the 2006 COSLA
                                                  Practice Guide. The appendix of this document          Good Practice Guide is that parent or community
                                                  focuses on communication and consultation issues       representatives appeared not to have been
                                                  and is intended to provide guidance for both           consulted in its production. Indeed, Richard Baker
                                                  informal and formal consultations.                     (MSP) speaking in Parliament on the matter (Feb
                                                                                                         2007 debate) remarks:
                                                  In 2007 the Cabinet Secretary for Education and
                                                  Lifelong Learning re-issued the 2004 guidance to         That would have been an obvious thing for
                                                  council education convenors along with a covering        COSLA to do in composing guidance – it
                                                  letter in which she requests that they reconsider        would have to consult the parents who have
                                                  the way in which their respective councils are           been involved in the issue to try to achieve a
                                                  applying the guidance:                                   resolution.

                                                    I also have little issue with the actual substance   Concerns regarding the interpretation of current
                                                    of the current guidance. My concerns focus           legislation relating to school closures have been
                                                    more on how some Councils are applying it,           aired again recently by Murdo Fraser (MSP) in
                                                    particularly where a closure proposal is not         his consultation document on the Rural Schools
                                                    referable to Ministers.                              (Scotland) Bill. In this document, he states:

                                                  She goes on to stress:                                   I believe the current legislative framework
                                                                                                           governing school closure decisions is too lax
                                                    It is crucial that the guidance is read and acted      and requires reform. (p.2)
                                                    upon as a whole rather than selectively, and
                                                    in the spirit of the whole document.                   Scottish Executive and Scottish Office
                                                                                                           Guidance…is in place to influence how
                                                                                                           local authorities meet their legislative
                                                  3.1.1 Commentary on the robustness of the                requirements. This is ambiguous in places.
                                                  legislative framework                                    (p.6)

                                                  Regarding the requirements on consultation             Likewise, the current Scottish Government
                                                  contained in the legislative and guidance framework    consultation (see Section 4.2) on safeguarding
                                                  described above, a common theme emerging from          rural schools and improving school consultation
                                                  commentary over recent years is that despite           procedures also includes a reflection on the
                                                  the intent for helpful and open engagement on          current legislative framework governing how
                                                  school closures between education authorities and      local authorities must handle school closure
                                                  statutory consultees, the framework as it stands       proposals:
                                                  leaves too much room for narrower interpretation
                                                  by authorities.                                          The legislation has been amended and added
                                                                                                           to over the years, in some cases in response
Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures

                                                  For example, COSLA (2006b) emphasised that               to very specific events or cases. The result
                                                  their School Estates Management Good Practice            is a patchwork of rules and regulations, the
                                                  Guide is intended as a ‘non-prescriptive’ document       oldest of which date back more than 25 years,
                                                  for councils, and one which allows them to dip           which focus in great detail on some parts of
                                                  into for helpful advice, rather than stipulating         the process yet ignore others. The whole is
                                                  any binding requirements. The current leeway in          thought by some to be difficult to understand
                                                  interpretation of legislation and guidance afforded      and no longer fit for purpose.
                                                  by the framework is alluded to in Fiona Hyslop’s                        (Scottish Government, 2008, p5)
                                                  (Cabinet Minister Education and Lifelong Learning)
                                                  letter to education convenors (October 2007).
4. Recent Contextual Developments

4.1 Proposal for Presumption against                    4.2 Safeguarding our Rural Schools and
Closure in Scotland                                     Improving School Consultation Procedures

The emphasis in debate in Parliament and from           Following its pledge to consider how best to take
campaigners has been on strengthening the               forward a consideration of these matters, the
existing legislative and guidance framework and         Scottish Government launched its consultation
finding ways to encourage more consumer-friendly        on proposals for changes to the legislation on
interpretation of the requirements.                     safeguarding rural schools and school consultation
                                                        procedures in May 2008. The stated objective of
Many commentators have seen attractions in the          the consultation is to establish a new framework
system operating in England where, since 1998, there    for consultation and decision-taking which sets out
has been a legal presumption against the closure of     more clearly the roles of both the local authorities
rural schools. Details set out in the Department for    and the parents and communities consulted. The
Education and Skills guidance state:                    proposed new framework is seen as encouraging
                                                        and delivering greater consistency of good
  In considering statutory proposals to close a         practice, and according with the fundamental
  rural school, the Decision Maker should have          principles and objectives of the new Concordat
  regard to the need to preserve access to a            between the Scottish Government and COSLA
  local school for rural communities. There is          and the local authorities, leaving local decisions
  therefore a presumption against the closure           to local decision-makers with knowledge of the
  of rural schools. This does not mean that no          immediate circumstances and concerns.
  rural school should ever close, but the case for
  closure should be strong and the proposals            A central proposal is to introduce a presumption
  clearly in the best interests of educational          against the closure of rural schools so that a closure
  provision in the area.                                decision is taken only as a last resort after all the
                                                        alternatives have been explored and the potential
Since the presumption against closure was               impact on the community fully considered. Other
introduced in 1998, on average only three rural         key proposals are that local authorities should be
schools have closed per year in England, compared       required to publish a statement setting out the
with 30 each year on average in the 15 years            educational benefit of the school closure proposal;
preceding the presumption (reported in Fraser,          and that local authorities should have regard to the
2008).                                                  likely overall impact of the school’s closure on the
                                                        communities it serves including the subsequent
Various petitions and motions have been lodged          use of the school’s building facilities and grounds,
with the Scottish Parliament in favour of introducing   and the implications of the new travel-to-school
a similar presumption against closure of rural          patterns and arrangements on pupils and other
schools in Scotland (e.g. PE 725; Motion of 14 Jan      school users and the environment.
2005; PE 872).

Murdo Fraser (MSP) (2008) has recently consulted
                                                                                                                 Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures

on a series of measures including the introduction
of a presumption against closure to counteract
what he sees as a local authority’s initial tendency
towards closure, with a view to incorporating the
measures into a Member’s Bill for introduction to
the Scottish Parliament.

5. Wider Context of School Closure Consultations
                                                     Highlighted by Research Evidence

                                                  Before examining in detail the four case studies         Murdo Fraser (MSP) (2008) raises the specific issue
                                                  selected for this study, it is useful to set a context   of information on school capacity figures contained
                                                  for the findings to emerge by distilling some of the     in school closure consultation documentation and
                                                  issues which have been emerging more generally           argues that as the method used for assessing the
                                                  from school closure consultations over recent            capacity of a school is left to the discretion of the
                                                  years. The literature review highlighted a variety       relevant local authority it may be:
                                                  of concerns, the most common relating to:
                                                                                                             tempted to err on the high side in order to
                                                                                                             bolster the case for closure or even bring a
                                                    • the accuracy of the information provided               school under the 80% capacity threshold
                                                      by local authorities in consultation                   where ministerial consent is required for
                                                      documentation                                          closure. Additionally, some capacity figures
                                                    • the factors on which decisions on school               may simply be out-of-date (p.9).
                                                      closures are made and the relative weighting
                                                      given to these                                       A related issue emerging in various literature and
                                                                                                           seen as diminishing the quality of meaningful
                                                    • the time permitted for consultation.                 consultation was the imbalance in access to expert
                                                                                                           advice and opinion between education authorities
                                                  Each of these is examined in more detail below.          and local communities. In evidence to the Scottish
                                                                                                           Parliament Education Committee, Kay (2006)
                                                                                                           argues that although parents and community
                                                  5.1 Concerns over Accuracy of Information in             members are not paid to be experts on educational
                                                  Consultation Documentation                               research, taxation policy, council revenue budgets
                                                                                                           or the relationships between governmental bodies,
                                                  Past communication between communities and               time and again they are forced into a steep learning
                                                  local authorities on proposals to close rural schools    curve in order to distinguish fact from fiction in
                                                  abounds with requests for clarification of information   what they are being told.
                                                  and accusations by community consultees of
                                                  inaccuracies in details, particularly around financial   Indeed, access by education authorities to expert
                                                  and pupil number projections. On occasions,              input in preparing their proposals regarding school
                                                  consultees raise concerns that they have not been        closures has been encouraged. For example, COSLA
                                                  presented with all of the relevant details, or figures   (2006a) recommends that should in-house resources
                                                  are out-of-date. For example, Cathy Peattie (MSP) in     be inadequate then the introduction of outside
                                                  2000 identified problems with respect to proposals       consultants and/or temporary resources should be
                                                  to close schools in Argyll and Bute:                     considered. In addition, evidence of the Accounts
                                                                                                           Commission/Audit Scotland input regarding
                                                    There is a strong indication at least in some          capacity-based analysis and advice features in many
                                                    respects that “incorrect material facts”               previous school closure consultations.
                                                    have been presented including inaccurate
Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures

                                                    information regarding the situation of                 Consultees’ concerns over alleged inaccuracies in
                                                    particular schools……the council has                    information provided in consultations by education
                                                    inaccurately or selectively interpreted account        authorities, along with an acknowledgement of the
                                                    commission documents.                                  lack of expertise of communities in assessing the
                                                                                                           validity of consultation documentation and knowing
                                                  Likewise, Cathy Jamieson (2007) remarking on             their way around the local authority system, has led
                                                  East Ayrshire Council’s proposals to close Sorn          to calls from some quarters for the instigation of some
                                                  School stated that the consultative paper on the         form of appeals procedure or schools adjudicator
                                                  school closure was flawed, and ‘doesn’t consider         process (as in England) (see for example, Sandy
                                                  all the options’.                                        Longmuir’s submission to the Education Committee
                                                                                                           13 September 2006 in relation to PE872).
5.2 Concerns over the Factors on which                  Many critics perceived that the alleged mitigating
Decisions on School Closures are based and              factors for closure cited by local authorities were
the Relative Weighting given to these                   often pre-occupied with issues of spare capacity
                                                        and calculations associated with the so-called
The literature reviewed revealed much discontent        ‘60% rule’ (whereby schools with less than 60%
over the factors which had formed the basis of          use of capacity may be considered as possible
a range of local authority proposals for school         candidates for closure). The origin and application
closures. Scottish Executive Guidance (2004)            of this ‘rule’ appears to be contentious, although
highlighted the relevant factors to take into account   according to Kay (2005) the Accounts Commission
in making a decision to close a school as:              used this ‘rule’ for several years to identify a
• education of pupils                                   problem of surplus capacity in Scottish schools
                                                        and had in its reports been encouraging councils to
• travel distance to school                             take action to deal with this reported problem.
• expected pupil projected numbers
                                                        Other commentators have campaigned for
• community use of schools                              broadening of the criteria for school closures to
• financial considerations                              include wider community issues and in doing
• other alternatives                                    so create a better fit with other Government
                                                        policies. For example, in her motion lodged with
• unique factors associated with a particular           the Scottish Parliament (S2M-1003#) Christine
  school.                                               Grahame (South of Scotland) (SNP) pointed
                                                        out that the Scottish Borders decision-chart on
However, it was clear from a variety of commentators    factors to be considered in school closures did
that such factors were considered too limited and       not include the ‘importance of the local school
facilitated an over-concentration on financial          to the community’. She suggested that without
factors linked with school capacity issues. Calls       this, the proposal for closure did not fit with the
were made for widening these criteria to give           Partnership for a Better Scotland policy – the
higher priority to the impact the closure would         Scottish Executive commitment to reform public
have on the wider community.                            services to fit around the needs of individuals and
                                                        communities in which they live, neither did it fit with
The notion of ‘proportionate advantage’ was raised      the ‘Building our Future Scotland’s School Estate’
by Brian Wilson (1998) (Scottish Office Minister for    which placed ‘the child at the centre, meeting the
Education at the time) who stated:                      needs of the individual’ and ‘the school at the
                                                        heart of the community, meeting the needs of the
  No school should close on financial grounds           communities’. Instead she claimed the proposed
  alone. There must also be a credible                  closures were driven by the requirements of PPP/
  educational justification for closure. I am now       PFI school building programmes.
  inviting education authorities to apply a test
  of proportionate advantage to any proposed            Likewise, in her motion S2M-1086#, Rhona Brankin
  closure of a rural primary school. In other           (Midlothian) (Lab) relating to Midlothian primary
  words, do the educational and financial gains         school closures suggested that local authorities
  deriving from a closure stand up to scrutiny          should be more informed about the Scottish
  and do they outweigh the negative effects –           Executive’s policies on the importance of rural
  on the rural community and the children and           services to sustainable rural communities and the
  their families – which that closure will have?        need to promote rural businesses.
                                                                                                                  Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures

                            (Scottish Office, 1998)
                                                        Rosie Kane (Glasgow) (SSP) lodged a motion
Such sentiments were echoed by Cathy Peattie            (S2M-2024) in connection with the threatened
(MSP) (2000) following her involvement in rural         closure of Holmea Primary School on the south
school closures in Argyll and Bute. One of her          side of Glasgow, which criticised the proposal on
recommendations was to base closure criteria on         the grounds inter alia that children would have to
proportionate advantage so that account is taken        travel further to school and ‘car use will increase
of all positive and negative consequences of the        which will fly in the face of the ‘Walk to School’
closure.                                                policy of the Scottish Executive’”.

Cathy Peattie (MSP) (2000) argued that the            Referring to the proposed closures in Argyll and
                                                  social and economic consequences for local            Bute, Cathy Peattie (2000) argued that even the
                                                  communities, including longer-term consequences       extended period of 6 weeks permitted by the
                                                  should be considered important in school closure      council did not give parents, School Boards (now
                                                  decisions, with regard being paid to policy on        Parent Councils) and staff enough time to put their
                                                  lifelong learning.                                    views forward.

                                                  In his answer to a parliamentary question on the      Reviewing school closure cases in England,
                                                  issue of school closure criteria (S1W-22918) Nicol    Pennel and West (2007) also identified concerns
                                                  Stephen (Feb. 22 2002) described a broad criteria     over the timing of consultations, and reported
                                                  set of ‘educational, financial and community          parent campaigners against the closure of schools
                                                  issues and other relevant considerations’.            considering that they did not receive information
                                                                                                        about the proposed closures in good time.
                                                  Common amongst these views from politicians
                                                  of different persuasions is a vision of a broader     While the overwhelming balance of consultees’
                                                  interpretation of the criteria for school closure     views in the literature favoured flexibility over
                                                  decision-making as set out in regulations and         consultation periods, largely to accommodate
                                                  guidance, with further cognisance taken at a local    their consideration of the complexities in the detail
                                                  level of wider Government policies.                   of the proposal, it is useful to balance these by
                                                                                                        reflecting on ways to streamline the consultation
                                                                                                        process in order to enable detailed consideration
                                                  5.3 Concerns over the Time Permitted for              within tight time frames. For example, The
                                                  Consultation                                          Consultation Institute (2007) advocate the use of
                                                                                                        ‘fast-track’ consultation based on e-consultation
                                                  The original guidance on consultation time periods    technology albeit with ‘careful handling’, and
                                                  contained in Circular 1074 (SOED, 1981) laid down a   confined to agreed circumstances, where the
                                                  minimum of 28 days for consultation with parents,     nature of the issue and the stakeholder base
                                                  but specified that parents and other parties to       make this appropriate. In such circumstances they
                                                  be consulted should be given as much advance          stress that greater attention must also be given to
                                                  warning as possible about proposed changes.           publicity and to ensuring that there is a widespread
                                                  COSLA (2006a) states that if a council is extending   awareness of the exercise, in order to avoid being
                                                  its public consultation beyond the statutory period   seen as ‘consultation on the cheap’.
                                                  this should be made clear, although it does not
                                                  encourage councils to make such extensions.
                                                                                                        5.4 Other Concerns
                                                  Based on the literature examined for this review,
                                                  it appears that although councils may be abiding      A few other concerns emerged from the literature
                                                  by the letter of the regulations in terms of time     although details were patchy and usually
                                                  periods, disquiet over time limits has been           anecdotal.
                                                  aroused in various cases largely due to unexpected
                                                  complexities of aspects of the proposals (e.g.
                                                  challenges to authorities’ financial rationales or    5.4.1 Who should be consulted?
                                                  consultee requests for more information) which
                                                  according to some commentators, have rendered         As outlined previously, the regulations on school
                                                  the strict time period inappropriate.                 closures (1981) specify the statutory consultees
Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures

                                                  For example, in the case of proposed closure          • the parent of every pupil attending the school
                                                  of the five Midlothian primary schools, Robin           affected by the proposal;
                                                  Harper (Lothians) (Green) lodged a motion (S2M-
                                                                                                        • the parent of every child known to the authority
                                                  1035) with the Scottish Parliament calling for the
                                                                                                          and who would be expected to attend the school,
                                                  statutory consultation period of 28 days to be
                                                                                                          or stage of education to be discontinued, within
                                                  extended ‘to enable local communities to fully
                                                                                                          two years from the date of the proposal;
                                                  explore and comment on the proposals’.
                                                                                                        • the Parent Councils or Combined Parent
                                                                                                          Councils; and

• the church, or denominational body, in               An examination of case literature, however, revealed
  whose interest the school is conducted, if           a common complaint from consultees over the
  appropriate.                                         clarity and detail of various aspects of consultation
                                                       documentation, usually focusing on population
However, Circular 1074 (SOED, 1981) recommends         and financial projections. Indeed, Petition 701
that consultation be wider in certain circumstances,   lodged with the Scottish Parliament on 8 January
for example in relation to rural schools there may     2004 called for the Parliament to urge the Scottish
be groups or bodies who have a local interest.         Executive to review consultation arrangements
The COSLA guidance (2006a) suggests that               on school closures and ensure, amongst other
authorities should draw up a list of potential         matters, that detailed costing associated with risk
interested individuals and groups such as local        assessments are made available. More recently,
MSPs, MEPs and community councils. This                Fiona Hyslop (2007) advised education convenors
emphasis on widening the range of consultees           that, ‘although there may not always be agreement
beyond the statutory list was recently supported       as to the figures, it is very important for a community
by the Education and Lifelong Learning Minister in     to understand clearly the basis for the population
her letter to education convenors (2007) in which      projections relevant to consideration of any school
she states:                                            closure proposal’.

  I would also wish to stress that pupils,
  every bit as much as parents, are also key           5.4.3 Concerns over informal consultation
  stakeholders in any potential changes to
  school provision. Experience suggests that           The COSLA guidance (2006a) suggests that local
  their input at an early stage can be very            authorities should consider a period of informal
  helpful. I would therefore expect you to use         consultation before the launch of their formal,
  relevant strategies to engage with pupils            statutory consultation. This period is seen as
  when considering any alterations to the              having the advantage of extending ownership of
  pattern of educational provision.                    the decision-making process to a comprehensive
                                                       range of stakeholders, while perhaps narrowing
In a similar vein, Children in Scotland (2008), in     down the range of options available prior to the
their response to Murdo Fraser’s consultation          formal proposal. However, a key drawback of this
document on the Rural Schools (Scotland) Bill          informal stage is that communities might perceive
argue for a presumption in favour of meaningful        this to lead to a fait accomplis.
consultations about rural schools ‘with children
and young people as well as with their mothers/        Peter Peacock in his letter to the Education
fathers/carers’.                                       Committee (as reported in Scottish Parliament
                                                       Education Committee Official Report 26 October
                                                       2005) commented on what he saw as insufficient
5.4.2 Concerns over the clarity of the                 distinction being made between informal
information provided                                   preliminary soundings and the more formal,
                                                       statutory consultation. The Consultation Institute
COSLA guidance (2006) suggests that parents are        (2007) also alludes to the need to differentiate
written to as soon as possible after an education      between the early scoping stage of decision-
committee decision to consult has been taken, and      making and the more focused debate of the formal
communication should be jargon-free and contain        consultation. They advocate a clear distinction
easily understood language. It goes on to specify      being made between what they term ‘general’
                                                                                                                 Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures

the content of consultation and provides tips for      and ‘specific’ consultations with the former
clarity on both informal and formal consultation       undertaken early and being wide-ranging in scope,
(e.g. be clear about what you are consulting on; be    and the latter taking place once option proposals
clear about what happens next; and so on).             have been developed and focusing on those
                                                       stakeholders most affected by those proposals.
The Scottish Executive guidance (2004) highlighted
the need for authorities to be confident of the
grounds for their proposals and for them to set
out the case for change, the advantages and
disadvantages, the costs and savings, fully, clearly
and openly.
6. Wider Context of Other Public Policy-Making
                                                     Consultations Highlighted by Research Evidence

                                                  Another way in which the case study findings           the commissioning agency to have responded to
                                                  can be usefully be set within a wider perspective      their contribution made at the meeting. Chess
                                                  is by examining briefly the issues emerging in         and Purcell (op cit) concluded that the success of
                                                  consultations in other policy spheres across public    public meetings could be enhanced by:
                                                  sector bodies. Taking stock of such issues informs     • holding them in combination with other forms
                                                  a judgement on whether the concerns relating             of participation;
                                                  to school closure consultations are specific to
                                                  this topic, or are an artefact of the public sector    • providing significant technical assistance to
                                                  consultation approach more generally.                    citizens;
                                                                                                         • conducting vigorous out-reach meeting
                                                  A useful definition of consultation is provided by       activities;
                                                  The Consultation Institute (2006):
                                                                                                         • discussing topics of social interest; and
                                                    Consultation is the dynamic process of               • fielding questions adequately.
                                                    dialogue between individuals or groups,
                                                    based upon a genuine exchange of views,              They outlined how their extensive search for
                                                    and normally with the objective of influencing       evidence had led them to produce a set of ‘public
                                                    decisions, policies or programmes of action.         participation rules of thumb’ which included the
                                                                                                         need for public bodies to be clear about their goals
                                                  This definition provides an example of a yardstick     for the public participation exercise; the need for
                                                  against which quality of consultation over school      participation to begin early with investment in
                                                  closures can be measured.                              advance planning to avoid participants feeling that
                                                                                                         final decisions have already been made; and being
                                                                                                         flexible about modifying the method of participation
                                                  6.1 Common Issues                                      to ensure that people not accustomed to speaking
                                                                                                         in public are still able to present their views.
                                                  An international literature review of civic
                                                  participation in public policy-making (Nicholson,      Jones (2004) highlighted concerns that the
                                                  2005) provides an opportunity to make a number         implementation of consultation varies considerably
                                                  of comparisons across different policy and             across consulting bodies, with Scottish public
                                                  jurisdiction domains.                                  service providers clearly accepting the need to
                                                                                                         consult but sometimes struggling to implement
                                                  A common theme to emerge is the general lack           the processes. When consultation is professionally
                                                  of critical assessment and systematic evaluation       undertaken Jones stresses that a range of tangible
                                                  of consultation exercises by public bodies which       benefits can result, but cautioned that all too often
                                                  curtails the identification of lessons to be learned   consultation can lapse into ‘caricature tokenism’
                                                  across authorities.                                    with stakeholders duped into wasting time and
                                                                                                         talent submitting views which are totally ignored.
Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures

                                                  In terms of public meetings, a mainstay of
                                                  consultation within the school closure field,          With reference to the other common element
                                                  Nicholson (op cit) reported the positive message       of school closure consultation – the written
                                                  that public meetings do tend to influence public       consultation paper – the Scottish Civic Forum
                                                  policy decisions, a finding backed up by Chess         (2003) summed up a number of concerning issues
                                                  and Purcell (1999) in their examination of the use     which emerged from their series of ‘Participation
                                                  of public meetings and workshops. However,             Summits’:
                                                  participants’ perceptions of such consultations
                                                  were largely influenced by the perceived fairness of   • certain community groups can feel over-
                                                  the process and the way in which they considered         consulted;

• tendency to involve the public too late in the     in environmental decisions. They identified an
  policy-development process;                        association between the public’s broad acceptance
• consultee perceptions that the consultation        of the final decision and, ‘the processes in
  represents a fait accomplish;                      which agencies are responsive, participants are
                                                     motivated, the quality of deliberation is high and
• responses not reflected in the final policy;       participants have at least a moderate degree of
• some consultation documents being very             control over the process’.
  large with a lot of sifting through required by
  respondents;                                       Others also found that participants’ perceptions
                                                     of their experiences of consultation are greatly
• some consultation documents being full of          influenced by aspects of the process. For
  jargon; and                                        example, Newman et al (2004) reported citizens
• large-print versions of documents not being        being frustrated by what they saw as the lack of
  available.                                         transparency in the process, with confusion over
                                                     where different responsibilities for decisions lay.
In addition, there was a view that written           Another example, cited by DETR (1998) was of
consultation exercises needed to be supported by     potential participants put off taking part by their
access to human contact, for example, Government     perception that certain groups would dominate
officials attending public meetings to outline the   the participation process.
key issues and discuss the consultation exercise
in more detail. Other suggestions were for the use   The Consultation Institute (2006), acknowledging
of a website and special telephone line as back-up   the lack of any recognised standards covering
sources of information.                              consultation, has itself adopted a ‘Charter’ as
                                                     an interim measure which includes seven best
Nicholson (op cit) highlighted a recurring concern   practice principles:
reported by public bodies that had difficulties
engaging with particular groups of people
including those living in rural areas and young       • The consultation process must have an
people. A key message to emerge was that                honest intention.
engaging such sectors required an adaptation          • All those who have a justifiable right to
of traditional methods of participation, not an         participate in a consultation should be made
adoption of ready-made approaches.                      aware of the exercise.
                                                      • Consultees must be able to have reasonable
Another broad lesson to emerge from previous
                                                        access to the exercise.
literature in different contexts is that citizens
should be involved at an early stage in policy        • Stakeholder invitation lists, consultee
decision-making. Thereafter, many commentators          responses and consultation results must
emphasised the importance of paying attention to        be published (with the express or implied
the process by which consultation is carried out.       consent of participants).
Involve, the national advisory group funded by the    • Consulters should be under a duty to
Department of Health, suggested that success in         disclose information which could materially
participation follows from an understanding of          influence the nature and extent of consultees’
the basic rule:                                         responses.

Purpose + Context + Process (including techniques)    • Information and viewpoints gathered
                                                                                                           Improving Consultation on Rural School Closures

= Outcome                                               through consultation exercises have to be
                                                        collated and assessed, and this task must
Involve argues that good consultation adheres           be undertaken objectively.
to certain principles such as being voluntary,        • Except in certain closed or internal
transparent, honest and clear, adequately               consultations, the assumption should be
resourced, accessible and accountable.                  that publication of the output and outcome
                                                        of the consultation process will follow within
The notion that ‘process matters’ was reiterated        a reasonable time after the conclusion of
by Beierle and Cayford (2002) in their systematic       the exercise.
review of 239 case studies of public participation
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