The Argyll Rural Schools Network (ARSN) has made its submission to the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education, with the Commission due to hold a public meeting in Lochgilphead on 6th March – time and venue to be announced.
The Executive of Argyll and Bute Council had lodged a submission with the Commission on behalf of the council – without first even presenting it to the council. This is the way things are done in Argyll and Bute at present.
This submission had been prepared by Education Director, Cleland Sneddon, the Executive Director who had led successive failures in two entire sets of school closure proposals – defeated by the Argyll Rural Schools Network.
It is therefore inevitable that the submissions from each side are there to be compared and there could hardly be a more revealing contrast.
Argyll and a very specific educational context
The breathtakingly beautiful Argyll is, with the exception of North Uist, the most topographically challenging area in Scotland. It has a hugely long coastline; a plethora of peninsulas – some remote; long sea lochs and long freshwater lochs, shredding the territory; mountains and glens; and over 20 inhabited islands, inshore and offshore.
It is the second largest of Scotland’s local authority areas and has the third most dispersed populations. With the exception of Helensburgh in the south, the populations of its major towns would see them classified as little more than small towns elsewhere.
Its mass and its topography dictate that this is a place of small, separate, dispersed, independent, self-reliant communities, each culturally rich and distinctive.
This is a place where the name of the game, in educational terms is – perforce, remote rural. It is a place where a primary school is an indissoluble element of a community; a place where children – as a man who returned to be married in Eriskay reported in the cult series An Island Parish, ‘you’re not brought up by a family, you’re brought up by an island’.
This is a place where any capable Education Director would understand that the challenge is to develop an education service fitting to the nature of the place and its plethora of fabulous microcultures – an education that plays to these unique strengths rather than seeking to dissipate them.
It cannot be other than perverse to attempt to impose upon a place like Argyll an education system befitting a compact, centralised and heavily populated area .
Argyll needs people who revel in its unique nature and identity and who have the capacity to respond to it joyfully, in invention and innovation.
It does not need those who want to make it something it is not. to press it into a convenient common mould, shaped in another place, so that it can be supplied with whatever on the basis of standard formulae.
Nothing about Argyll is convenient or standard and there are few formulae that could be applied to more than a very few instances.
The American poet, William Carlos Williams, was asked to explain why he felt that poetry works best by creating a form to fit its content rather than imposing an off-the-shelf form, like an ode or a sonnet, upon whatever content is in need of expression.
He said, simply:’A crab needs a crab-shaped box.’
In the council’s submission to the Rural Education Commission, we see the peripatetic Cleland Sneddon force the crab of Argyll into the rectangular box of ‘bigger is better’, into formulae he had applied in his fast progress through no fewer than six previous local authorities to date – all very different from Argyll.
In truth, pretty well everything is very different from Argyll, but Mr Sneddon is a Canute who wishes to make nature conform to half-baked theory.
As we observed, stunned, in our review of his submission to the Commission on behalf of the council, it was utterly bereft of any focus on education as we understand it, or on young children as the emergent beings they are – rather than as units to be managed, stacked into set spaces and moved on and off buses at 30 seconds a stop.
And nowhere in Mr Sneddon’s submission was there even engagement with the nature of Argyll and the consequences of that nature for the fitting education of its young people.
To someone with the mechanised mindset of Mr Sneddon, Argyll is a confounded nuisance not a rich opportunity.
The Argyll Rural School’s Network perspective
In its submission, ARSN is clearly working to achieve two aims:
- head off at the pass some pieces of anti-rural education misinformation proven to have been pre-prepared for its representatives on the Commission by that commission’s joint ‘owner’, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA);
- speak for the nature and strengths of rural primary education to an audience potentially disposed to see it as an anachronism, less able than mass education and an expensive inconvenience.
Dealing with deliberate misinformation
One quite disgraceful misinformation that has already made its way into the Commission is one featuring early on the leaked COSLA list – that children educated in small rural schools are socially dysfunctional.
This is so gross a maligning that it comes close to a form of racism. It is a subject we hope to return to because it is one that does not withstand investigation.
ARSN simply say: ‘ARSN do not believe rural primary schools have particular disadvantages to the children that attend them. They are different from urban schools – and indeed they are very different from each other – but there is no evidence that these differences produce children who are either socially or educationally inept. Anecdotal evidence points strongly to the contrary but there is a need for more academic research on this subject.’
Speaking for the strengths of a rural primary education
Question 2 on the Commission’s submission template asks: ‘Do you think that rural schools provide particular educational benefits to their pupils and if so what do you think these are?’. Mr Sneddon for the council, wrote only 5 lines here, saying that rural schools produce a ‘strong feeling of community’ while qualifying this particular benefit as being dependent upon the quality of leadership of the Head Teacher and the skills of class teacher. Que?
ARSN in response to the same question, makes some very pertinent observations:
- Community boundaries are more visible in rural than urban schools. This is both practically inevitable and philosophically profound. It reflects a specifically enabled sense of belonging and a community affinity that offers physical and psychological security to young children; while creating a confinement and a disabling known-ness that many teenagers, with the evolutionary pressures of a different stage of existence, reject for the time being.
- Social cohesion is high in rural communities – so there is less social isolation. The heart of this observation is that it is much harder to go missing, actually or metaphorically or to spin off the edge of a rural community than it is in an urban one.
ARSN then identifies one vulnerability of a small rural school to which larger and urban schools are generally immune. It says: Small schools are vulnerable to rapid parental disapproval. IN support of this statement, ARSN explain that: ‘This is usually caused by friction between the parents and the head teacher. ARSN would like to see HMIE/ES monitoring the annual level of placement requests in and particularly out of all schools. A high level of placements out of a school may indicate a dysfunctional school that will become vulnerable to a collapsing roll that may threaten its viability. HMIE/ES should be able to insist that local authorities (LAs) both ascertain the underlying reasons for such placements and what measures they are taking to combat these.’
This has been more or less the scenario with one important urban school (Achaleven) in the village of Connel, where the population of children is healthy and capable of sustaining am energetic and viable primary school. Argyll and Bute Council have been aware of the specific nature of this problem and have have chosen not to address it but to let the school empty itself – which it has – and then close it, which was one of their proposals.
In the two submissions on this issue, one is perfunctory and confused, where the other is insightful and analytic. The empty and indeed vacuous response is from the ‘professional’ senior officer, the Director of Education at the council; and the thoughtful and incisive one from the parent volunteers who are members of ARSN.
Rural schools and the Curriculum for Excellence
Curriculum for Excellence is in part based around the value of collaborative exploration and discovery and experiential learning.
Me Sneddon’s view of how rural schools perform in providing this approach to learning is weighed down with problems:
- The geography of Argyll makes everything hard. (It also makes everything particularly distinctive and rich.)
- There is a smaller pool of staff. (There is also a smaller pool of children.)
- IT only makes a limited difference. (But it is an enabling difference.)
- A lot of small schools are expensive for an authority to maintain. (Not necessarily, if maintenance if meticulously carried out in good time. The Schools Act also overtly proscribes closure decision being made on cost grounds.)
ARSN say: ‘As CforE is very new then there has not been time for any studies to have been made specifically on the effects of small class size and small school size on delivery of CforE.
‘This makes it possible for those seeking to denigrate the educational benefits of rural schools to advance un-evidenced arguments without fear of evidenced rebuttal as there is no specific evidence either way.
‘However, from the few HMIE inspections so far carried out post the introduction of CforE, it is clear that rural schools in general are receiving excellent reports on their implementation of the CforE. This has included reports from very small rural schools.
‘The small amount of evidence we have to date, therefore, does not only fail to support the argument that rural schools will struggle to implement CforE, it actually supports the opposite case.
‘It is also possible to construct an argument that very small schools will be more effective in implementing CforE than large schools. Mixed age classes are more common in rural primaries than in urban schools but studies have shown that mixed age learning tends in any case to have a positive educational effect on all of the pupils.’
School and community
The ARSN submission is also capable of the sort of proactive lateral thinking that can identify the cornerstones of education in a place like Argyll.
It demonstrates that it is born of wide ranging and practical thinking, saying: ‘Rural schools are important community assets but Local Authorities often fail to fully mobilise community support in their upkeep and improvement, sometimes to the point of actively discouraging community participation.
‘Parent councils and community groups are often very active in procuring additional facilities for their schools and can access sources of grant support that are unavailable to Local Authorities.
‘Much greater use must be of the ability of communities to support their local schools. This includes not only parents and community groups but also local businesses, many of whom recognize the importance of the local school in attracting workers into an area.
‘New schools in rural areas should always be designed to operate as joint educational and community facilities and the Scottish Government should explore means by which communities can contribute to the cost of these facilities through grant capture.
The internet is revolutionizing the provision and delivery of information and the major challenge for rural areas is to ensure they can access high band width services. Using schools as the infrastructural hub for such services will not only ensure that rural schools do not lose out on the educational benefits of fast broadband internet but also have valuable social benefits to local communities and businesses.’
This was in response to Question 5: ‘Do you have any comments or suggestions on how to ensure the viability and sustainability of rural education?’
Mr Sneddon is unable here to think beyond the utility of remote learning and IT – while making sure to place this in the cost saving context of moving away from the concept of the ‘computer suite’ (local authority provided) and emphasising the need for pupils to provide their own ‘devices’. This is qualified by the mention of a budget to provide for pupils whose parents could not afford these. No doubt these would all be uniform and identifiable as the ‘free ones for the needy’.
The primacy of educational benefit in school closure and pupil transfer
This is Question 7 in the Commission’s response form, where Q7(b) says: ‘… provide any comments on how the educational benefits statement is used or how you think it could be improved?’
This relates to the statutory requirement for school closure proposals to contain a statement on the educational benefit, which is to be the final determinant of whether or not Scottish Ministers confirm or reject a local authority decision to close a rural school.
The core of Mr Sneddon’s response is to propose hiving off the responsibility first to Education Scotland, the government department and then to HMIE, the school inspectorate. The proffered grounds for this are essentially that the current system is intrinsically ‘adversarial’. This can be translated as meaning that ARSN took apart the council’s unable educational benefit statements in short order and Mr Sneddon is wily enough to prefer to see Education Scotland or HMIE take the flak for poor arguments advanced on this front.
Conversely, ARSN’s response addresses a level of detailed understanding and analysis on this issue that the Education Director seems unable to access.
They also identify a major widespread concern with the instability of HMIE’s performance in its current role of approving or not) the closure of a school. This ‘instability’ of response – which could, on evidence (Uyeasound school in Shetland, being one example), justifiably be rendered as ‘expedient’, may have had no little part to play in Mr Sneddon’s enthusiastic championing of the potential role of HMIE in the educational benefit statement (EBS) evaluation.
‘The primary motivation of parents is in procuring the best educational outcome for their children. Closure proposals must clearly and quantifiably demonstrate how their children will benefit from the proposals. Sadly, in ARSN’s experience, closure proposals rarely make a genuine attempt to demonstrate benefit and, worryingly, there has been the impression that HMIE are prepared to nod through educational benefit statements regardless of its actual content.
‘There needs to be clear guidance given to LAs (Ed: local authorities) as to what arguments they are allowed to deploy in terms of educational benefit and what evidence they need to provide to support these arguments. Vague and un-quantified statements should be strongly discouraged.
‘As an example, recent closure proposals have frequently made the argument that by closing a rural school the resulting savings can be distributed amongst the rest of the schools and thus benefiting everyone. Such arguments should only be allowed where such an effect is quantified and is actually significant ie that the closure will allow the redistribution of large amounts of finance that may indeed have a measurable effect.
‘If the effect is actually small then this argument should be barred from the EBS.
‘Another example is un-evidenced statements around the benefits of larger peer groups. This first seemed to appear in proposals coming from Glasgow and to then have been copied by other LAs. HMIE has also seemed to have accepted this argument despite there not being a shred of evidence to support it and the fact that LAs have been deploying the argument regardless of the size of school under consideration.
‘LAs should be restricted to making arguments that have at least a degree of support from academic studies and where the effect can be quantified.
‘Another feature of many EBS we have seen has been to describe differences between the targeted and receiving schools and attempt to portray these as advantages of the receiving school. This has been exaggerated by using positive language to describe the features of the receiving school and negative language for the targeted school. Some of these statements would not have disgraced a dodgy estate agent.
‘There has also been, in our experience, very little or indeed no mention given in closure proposals to ‘Dis-benefits’ or disadvantages that pupils from the closing school will experience. For example: Access to After-school Classes will actually be greatly reduced as they will only be available to pupils who have parents that will be able to collect them from the receiving school at the end of the class as the council will not provide additional transport for this.
‘Descriptions used in the EBS should be factual, verifiable, evidenced and described in unbiased terms.
‘It would help if a matrix could be provided by ES (Ed: Education Scotland) that exhaustively lists the important educational features of a school so that the school targeted for closure can be directly compared with the receiving school in a sober fashion and the inclusion of this comparative matrix is compulsory for all EBS. ‘
Improvements to the existing system
The Commission asks respondents (Q8) for suggestions on improvements to the existing system for proposing to close a rural school.
Me Sneddon asks for help in the provision of an essentially templated set of tick boxes to avoid the higher level challenge of discriminating between major and minor evidences on the basis of his own understanding and values. He says:
‘Revised statutory guidance should provide a set of criteria to be used by authorities in assessing the viability of alternative proposals, potentially in an options appraisal format. This guidance should also be clear that alternatives may continue to be identified and be assessed throughout the statutory consultation process.’
This relates to a particularly macchiavellian process Mr Sneddon himself is on the record as proposing during the stormy process of his unable proposals at Argyll and Bute.
At one meeting he triumphantly explained to councillors that well found criticism of the proposals could be turned to advantage. He felt that they could simply be incorporated into the consultation document during the consultation period and that therefore the efforts of the critics would effectively strengthen the case against them.
This shyster manoeuvre could not be incorporated into statutory guidance. It would simply licence councils to throw any old closure proposal into consultation, sit back and wait for able and energetic school campaigners to demolish the unable case and then replace it progressively with sound information which they would then cannibalise and turn against the campaigners.
One thing to be said for Mr Sneddon is that he doesn’t let go of a fond tactic, however brutally it has been exposed as inadequate or plain wrong.
ARSN, typically, take the question deeper, addressing the issue of the nature of rural education and the lack of any serious attempt top analse and define it. They say:
‘A major part of the problem over rural school closures is that there has been no attempt to define what the educational provision in rural areas should be.
‘The pattern of schools tends to reflect the Parish school system, with LAs often having inherited their rural schools from either the parish system or from later donations from landowners, the Forestry Commission etc.
‘The Scottish Government should conduct research to determine the requirement for rural school provision based on a combination of population density and size of an area so that a national plan for rural education can be developed that in turn leads to a statutory requirement for provision.’
The imperative of respite
Very importantly, ARSN, with first hand knowledge of the stress impacts on children, parents and communities that Argyll and Bute Council determinedly subjected to serial closure attempts over the past eighteen months, identifies the absolute need for respite.
Argyll and Bute saw schools and communities literally fight for their lives over a prolonged period – and win. And with no breathing space they found themselves summoned to the arena yet again. This was a fully sadistic process and simply cannot be supported. ARSN say:
‘Regardless of the overall framework, ARSN would like to see a provision that a rural school that has been formally proposed for closure and which goes through a consultation for closure cannot be reconsidered for closure within 7 years.
‘This will ensure that no child in a primary school ever has to go through the trauma of a closure process more than once in their schooling.’
Note: We have previously evaluated Mr Sneddon’s submission for the council to the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education here: Costa Sneddonia refloated: Council submission to rural education commission.
We attach here the full text of the Argyll Rural School Network submission, discussed in outline above and an informative read: ARSN Submission to Commission on Rural Education_Final