PRESS RELEASE: Council misled by schools closure dodgy dossier.

Argyll & Bute councillors were deceived prior to their vote on their schools closure plans. One of the documents provided to them by officials had been “sexed up” to bolster the weak case for school closures. The paper quoted two studies to back the closures, but their authors have denied that their work came to the conclusions attributed to them and called the officials’ behaviour “highly misleading” and “wholly unjustified.”

The Argyll & Bute proposals claimed that “Studies of the sustainability of rural communities do not generally see the existence of a school as being of comparable importance to local employment opportunities, the availability of housing, private sector led economic diversity or clean energy.”

Denis Donoghue, Research Director of HallAitken, who produced the original study denied that his work said anything of the sort. He pointed out that his report had emphasised the importance of rural schools in sustaining rural communities and concluded “Overall I feel that using this report as a basis for concluding that schools are less important in sustaining rural communities is wholly unjustified.”

The second report came from Helena Crow, Research Officer in the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environmental Research & Analysis Directorate, who also attacked the use of her work to bolster school closures. In reply to a query from the Argyll Rural Schools Network, she wrote, “My research did not recommend the closure of rural primary schools. It highlighted the important role of rural schools in enhancing the social and economic sustainability of some areas.”

Ms Crow’s report notes that among “the factors encouraging families to leave rural areas are . . . a lack of accessible shops, schools and services,” and that “The availability of high quality childcare , nursery and school provision, and appropriate access to it,” were a key consideration for families in rural communities.

It is clear that Argyll & Bute Council officials have misrepresented the findings of the studies they quote in the Proposal Documents. They have misled not only councillors but all the people of Argyll and Bute, and will have influenced the decision of councillors on the 25th November to continue the schools closure programme. Such a deception is a grave abuse of the schools consultation process and cannot be allowed to stand.

Murdo MacDonald, convener of the Argyll Rural Schools Network, said, “Surely we have had enough of people being led astray by dodgy dossiers and misinformation. This is a scandal and we call on Argyll & Bute Council to immediately abandon the now completely discredited proposals. We also ask the Council Leader what action he intends to take against those officers involved in this dishonourable behaviour. Should the Council not address this outrage, ARSN reserves the right to put this matter before Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.”

Background Briefing and references.

The Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 (Section 12 (3)(b)) requires any local authority planning to close a school to address “the likely effect on the local community in consequence of the proposal (if implemented).”

Argyll & Bute Council responded in the following paragraph: “Studies of the sustainability of rural communities do not generally see the existence of a school as being of comparable importance to local employment opportunities, the availability of housing, private sector led economic diversity or clean energy. None of these issues are affected by the proposal.” (Argyll & Bute Council – Review of Educational Provision, section 5)

In reply to a Freedom of Information request Argyll & Bute Council confirmed that “These comments are derived from a report commissioned in 2007 by the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Western Isles Enterprise and Communities Scotland, entitled Outer Hebrides Migration Study. The document can be obtained from the Comhairle’s website at

http://www.cne-siar.gov.uk/factfile/population/documents/OHMSStudy.pdf

Education also took cognisance of a report published by the Scottish Government entitled “Factors Influencing Rural Migration Decisions in Scotland: An Analysis of the Event.” This document can be obtained from the Scottish Government website at

http://www.scotland.gov.uk/publications/2010/09/10103019/0

The Argyll Rural Schools Network felt that the tenor of these reports was not accurately represented in the Council ‘s proposals and contacted the authors.

Denis Donoghue, Research Director  of HallAitken, who was responsible for the Outer Isles Migration Study wrote: “Firstly, I would like to point out that the section of the report that they (Argyll & Bute Council) refer to sets out the outcomes of a scenario planning workshop involving public sector officials and elected members. It was only one element of a very comprehensive and wide-ranging research project. Secondly, the inference that they (Argyll & Bute Council) draw about schools is not one that the vast majority of those reading the report (or even that section) would draw. The session, as I recollect, did not ask participants to compare importance of local services and it is therefore highly misleading of Argyll and Bute Council to use this as a basis for drawing this conclusion.”

Mr Donoghue goes on to note that “Chapter 6 of the report  . . . clearly states that:

“The focus for interventions should therefore be on: Retaining more young people in the local population; Increasing the number of young women and couples in the population;
Stabilising the number of primary school age children in the local population”

He also notes that “The importance of primary schools to sustaining remote communities is widely acknowledged and was highlighted in our more recent Orkney Population Study, which highlighted that “people often perceive that having a GP and a primary school are key services and that when these go the islands are under threat.”

He concludes, “Overall I feel that using this report as a basis for concluding that schools are less important in sustaining rural communities is wholly unjustified.”

The second report referred to in Argyll & Bute’s proposals came from Helena Crow, Research Officer in the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environmental Research & Analysis Directorate. In reply to ARSN’s enquiry she replied, “My research did not recommend the closure of rural primary schools. It highlighted the important role of rural schools in enhancing the social and economic sustainability of some areas – for example, by helping to bring in families (Hall Aitken, 2007), by strengthening young people’s sense of attachment to and inclusion in their local area (Findlay et al, 1999), and by strengthening young people’s sense of attachment to and inclusion in their local areas, which evidence suggests could be key for encouraging them to return in later life (Hall Aitken, 2007; Jameson 2000; Highlands and Islands enterprise, 2009). One study suggested that policy makers should maintain and promote the high quality of rural education because of its ability to enhance the social sustainability of certain areas. (Hall Aitken, 2007)”

Ms Crow’s report notes (P3) that among “the factors encouraging families to leave rural areas are . . . a lack of accessible shops, schools and services.” A table entitled “Encouragers and enablers motivating individuals to move into rural areas,” (P6) lists “The availability of high quality childcare , nursery and school provision, and appropriate access to it,” as a key consideration for families. She notes (P23) that “The closure of local schools is also identified as an issue by the 2004 study of migration in North Lewis and Roxburgh.”

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