Chapter 6: Educational Benefits Statements
82. When the 2010 Act was passed, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning emphasised "the need for educational benefit to be the driving force in any proposed closure". This was underpinned by Section 3 of the Act and made Educational Benefits Statements an important and controversial part of school closure decisions. This set a very high bar for closure proposals to reach, and created unrealistic expectations in parents that closure would be based solely on educational issues and not affect schools which were providing a high standard of education but at a high cost per pupil. The Educational Benefits Statements made by some local authorities and the report provided by Education Scotland have not provided the detail or considered the issues which communities expected.
83. As authorities gain experience using the 2010 Act, better practice could be expected to arise and this should be promoted through more detailed guidance on Educational Benefits Statements, making it clear that an assessment of educational benefits should focus on those children directly affected, distinguishing between this and the likely effect on pupils at other schools indirectly affected by a closure proposal (if relevant) and be rigorous in defining claimed benefits.
84. The Commission would also support a wider role for Education Scotland in providing a detailed response to the proposed educational benefits and having a more sustained involvement in a proposal; for example, to confirm whether a concern has been resolved or remains.
85. Education Scotland advised the Commission that any school, irrespective of size, could be excellent and that such excellence is dependent on the quality of staff rather than the size or physical facilities, and could change relatively quickly. The 2010 Act nonetheless places a clear responsibility on local authorities to list educational benefits and give the reasons and evidence for believing these to be true; and on Education Scotland to provide an independent and expert report on these. Education Scotland's report is informed by any recent inspections it has carried out, and the Commission had some concern that where there had not been a recent inspection, this evidence would not be available.
86. The Commission considered whether educational benefit should be the only determining factor in school closures or not. The Commission recognised that Parliament's intention in passing the 2010 Act was to give educational benefit primacy in school closure decisions. However, the Commission also recognised that the educational difference between schools is more often marginal than decisive and that requiring an authority to magnify small differences in provision has led to tensions between communities within a local authority's area, which benefits no party in these decisions. Understandably, communities have little confidence in over-stated educational benefits and suspect another agenda. The Commission, however, saw examples of local authorities which consulted well, genuinely exploring viable alternatives to closure, exhausting all possibilities and which were open about the financial aspects of closure proposals. Where closures were progressed, parents from those authorities said that while they were sad to lose their schools, they nonetheless understood every aspect of the proposal, including the financial arguments, and came to accept the need for closure and merger. These authorities also gave communities ownership of the closure and transfer processes.
87. The Commission agreed that the Educational Benefits Statement should remain an essential and critical part of any school closure proposal. The majority of the Commission considered that it should be acceptable to conclude that the educational impact of a closure proposal is neutral with no overall educational detriment to the children directly concerned. In such circumstances, if a closure continued to be proposed it would be crucial that any other factors were fully and transparently scrutinised and identified clear overall benefit to the rural communities involved.
88. Three members of the Commission were unable to support this position or Recommendation 20. In their view the primacy of establishing educational benefit is a fundamental component of the 2010 Act and was the clearly expressed will of Parliament. While acknowledging that supporting factors should be fully considered, establishing educational benefit must remain the clear focus and the primary driving force behind school closure proposals.
89. The Commission agreed that it is unrealistic to suggest that closure proposals are only made for solely educational reasons and recommends that there should be a place for setting out transparent financial information in a closure proposal.
90. Clear guidance on the appropriate financial information to include would ensure that this was presented in a complete and consistent manner, rigorously evidencing any financial argument that is deployed. It is important to avoid an argument that any cost saving from a closure would leave more funds for other educational purposes and have an educational benefit to the majority of children in the area, as this could be an argument against many aspects of rural service provision. Remoteness should always be a key consideration, recognising the impact of moving education provision an unreasonable distance from any community.
91. This wider approach would allow local authorities to make a detailed Educational Benefits Statement as well as including other relevant factors such as their strategy for schooling in the area and financial issues. This would recognise and allow an honest debate about why, in many cases, local authorities feel compelled to propose a school closure.
Education Scotland should have a wider role in providing a detailed response to the proposed educational benefits and a more sustained involvement in a school closure proposal.
Educational Benefits Statements must continue to be a very important part of a closure proposal and further guidance should be provided to ensure these are of a higher quality.
It should be acceptable for an Educational Benefits Statement to conclude that the educational impact is neutral, with no overall educational detriment to the children directly concerned. In such circumstances, if a closure continued to be proposed, it would be essential that any other factors are fully and transparently scrutinised, including identifying clear overall benefit to the rural communities involved.