Two primary schools in the Western Isles are set to shut and two others will discontinue secondary education after a court battle between the council and the Scottish Government.
The government called in a decision by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar which will affect almost 100 children. However, a senior judge has now ruled in favour of the local authority.
The future of 19 pupils at Carloway Primary in Lewis, six at Shelibost Primary in Harris, 34 secondary pupils at Shawbost and 37 at Lionel school on Lewis will now be determined at the council’s education committee meeting on Tuesday, with details on how the schools will close to be discussed.
The proposals to shut the schools were among plans to close eight primary schools and end S1 and S2 provision at three more, a move that caused outrage with protesters who argued the move would rip the heart out of local communities.
The Court of Session heard that the council maintained there were too many schools in its area for the size of the pupil population and that many of them are costly to maintain.
The local authority decided to close Carloway and Shelibost and to discontinue the expanded education provision a Shawbost and Lionel in November 2010. But their decision did not find favour with Scottish Ministers, who decided to issue call-in notices last year under the Schools Consultation Scotland Act 2010.
Education Secretary Michael Russell said he believed that the council's consultation was "flawed". He said at the time: "I believe that the council has not properly considered the alternatives to closure, the likely effect on the local community and the transport arrangements in its consultations on these school closures."
But the council went to the Court of Session in Edinburgh to challenge the decision in a judicial review, seeking a declaration that ministers erred in law. On Wednesday, Lord Brailsford ruled in favour of the local authority in a written decision.
The judge said: "In my opinion, in respect of each of the four schools, a fair reading of the various papers produced by the council in order to comply with the statutory steps......leads to the conclusion that they have properly and fairly considered all matters relevant to the closure proposals. It follows that I am of the opinion that the call-in notices were not justified".
Angus Campbell, leader of the Comhairle, said: “The judgement is entirely in the Comhairle’s favour and that is to be welcomed although it is regrettable that we had to take this action. Members took the decisions on school closures extremely seriously and we were confident that our officers had followed procedures properly.
“We therefore had to question the decisions taken by Scottish Ministers. This judgement from the Court of Session confirms that was the right course of action. It was only fair for those communities where schools were closed to know that procedures were correct. We remain committed to working with the Scottish Government and in particular taking forward the Curriculum for Excellence”.
Catriona Stewart, chair of Education and Children’s Services, added: “This has been a lengthy process but it is fair to say that it was the right course of action. We will now analyse the judgement and a report will come to the Education and Children’s Services Committee next Tuesday. This decision allows us move on and work together with our communities to provide the best education possible in the best possible buildings for our children.”
In response to the court’s decision, Mr Russell said: “This judgement applies a wider scope to ministerial decision making than has existed to date, and indicates that ministers should look at the merits of school closure, not just the process. We will now consider the judgement in detail, and decide on our next step in due course.”
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