Plans to close a rural primary school have been blocked by a government watchdog in what is being hailed a “landmark” case.
Perth and Kinross Council voted last year to axe Abernyte Primary as part of cost-cutting measures, saying the roll, which at the time amounted to just eight pupils, was too low for it to be sustainable.
However, Scottish Ministers called in the decision for further scrutiny and referred the case to the School Closure Review Panel.
It has now overturned the closure, saying there had been a “comprehensive failure of process” in the council’s consideration of financial details, previous actions to save the school and the impact on the community.
The panel has only been asked to intervene in a handful of cases and council bosses launched an ill-fated legal challenge to block the probe. However, the case was thrown out in the Court of Session, meaning it can expect a hefty bill.
In a report published this week, the reporter stated: “The panel considers that each of the three failures is significant on its own.
“Taken together, in the panel’s view there has been a comprehensive failure of process.
“The panel has considered carefully whether the council properly addressed the considerations it must address and has concluded that it has not.”
Parent council chairman Gerard McGoldrick said the ordeal has been a David versus Goliath battle but families were relieved to have won and wanted to help the local authority increase the school roll. The group was expecting the figure to rise to 12 in the last academic year, despite the closure threat hanging over it.
“The parent council and local community are over the moon. It’s a wonderful decision and the correct one,” he said.
“It’s amazing not just for our school but is a landmark case for rural schools across Scotland. Local authorities won’t make the same mistake again.”
He added: “There’s a place for bespoke, idyllic rural education and more people will turn to it after Covid-19.
“It’s been a frustrating year but we’re looking forward to working with the council to make the school more sustainable – something they should have done at the start.
“We don’t have that cloud hanging over us anymore, which is a relief for pupils, staff and the community.”
Perth and Kinross Council said it accepted the decision.
A spokesperson said: “We acknowledge the comments made by the panel and will give these full consideration.
“It is important that we provide clarity for the community at this stage in relation to what will happen next and we can confirm that we will not be appealing the decision of the panel.”
Politicians have blasted the council over the issue.
Perth and North Perthshire MP Pete Wishart said: “This entire process has been a complete fiasco from start to finish and I hope that we can now draw a line under this and get on with work to strengthen the future of this fantastic rural school.
“Given that both the Court of Session and the School Closure Review Panel have revealed serious failures in the entire process, we must have answers from those responsible. ”
Deputy First Minister and SNP colleague John Swinney said: “The panel’s review raises serious questions regarding Perth and Kinross Council’s rationale for closing the school and their decision-making throughout this process.
“I hope that the council will reflect carefully on these findings, so as to ensure that no other local school will be forced to endure such needless uncertainty.”
Mr Wishart has asked for answers from Conservative councillor Angus Forbes, who represents the Carse of Gowrie and was targeted in an unsuccessful personalised campaign asking him to block the initial closure.
Having voted in favour of the closure, Mr Forbes now says the council will do its best to grow the school’s catchment area.
“My opinion on Abernyte school has always been that this is a great school without a viable catchment,” he said.
“Way before there was any talk of closure, parents within the catchment made the choice to send their children to other schools, and indeed continue to do so.
“Back in 2012 the parent council rightly identified the falling role as an issue and begged the then SNP administration for a catchment review, it’s my view that had they been listened to then, it may have made a difference.
“I’ll work with the education staff at the council and the local community to try and find a way to grow the catchment.”
However, fellow Carse councillor Alasdair Bailey said the issue should never have made it this far.
The Labour member said: “The Conservative administration at PKC must now abandon their over-zealous plan to eradicate all small rural schools and work constructively with the community to attract more kids to restore Abernyte as the vibrant and bustling rural school that it was before the threat of closure started to loom over it.”