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June 8, 2010

Councils need community allies – not enemies

As Councils ready themselves for those tough financial decisions that the Prime Minister was trailing earlier this week, the need to keep local communities on side has never been greater.  All too often councils and communities start with the assumption that they must stand in opposition to one another – with the result that everyone ends up losing.  The recent action by parents to stage a sit in at Gartsherrie Primary School is an example of how far apart the two sides can become

A sit-in by parents at a closure-threatened primary school in North Lanarkshire is continuing.

About 10 people occupied Gartsherrie Primary in Coatbridge overnight in protest at the council’s plans to shut the school later this month.

It follows an unsuccessful High Court bid by parents to keep the school open.

The parents want a face-to-face meeting with Education Secretary Mike Russell. He has spoken to them on the phone and said he would meet the local MSP.

The council has arranged for pupils to be bussed to the nearby Coatbridge High for lessons while the sit-in continues.

Kay Rowatt, chairwoman of the Gartsherrie Save the School Action Group, told the BBC Scotland news website: “About 10 of us stayed in the school overnight, including a 71-year-old grandmother.

“We were still there this morning and I have personally had a phone call from Mike Russell.

We understand parents’ disappointment, however the decision to close a school is never taken lightly

Spokesman North Lanarkshire Council

“He has agreed to meet with one of our local MSPs, John Wilson, who will present all the evidence we have gathered to show that the whole closure consultation process carried out by North Lanarkshire was flawed.

“Other MSPs will also be lobbying Mr Russell on our behalf.”

She added: “Our protest will go on until we get a face-to-face meeting with the education secretary.”

The Scottish goverment said the final decision to close Gartsherrie rested entirely with North Lanarkshire Council.

A spokesman added: “While the education secretary understands the concerns of the parents he believes no positive outcome can be achieved from a sit-in and conveyed this to Kay Rowat of the Gartsherrie Parent Action Group when they spoke last night, to reiterate that ministers have no powers to intervene in this process.

“No meeting was agreed or arranged with the Gartsherrie Parent Action Group, however, Mr Russell has agreed to meet MSP for Central Scotland John Wilson who has been briefed by the action group.

“Mr Russell is clear that a sensible discussion can only take place through the proper channels.”

Gartsherrie Primary is among four North Lanarkshire schools due to shut permanently at the end of the current term.

The council approved the closures in March.

Financial challenges

A legal bid by parents from Gartsherrie to challenge the decision at the High Court by seeking an interim interdict against the closure of the school was unsuccessful.

In a statement, the authority said it was unable to open the school as normal due to the ongoing sit-in action.

A spokesman said: “Our contingency plans have gone well and 96 pupils from a school roll of 124 are taking their lessons at Coatbridge High School today.

“We will return the pupils to Gartsherrie at the end of the school day and this arrangement will continue for as long as the sit in continues.

“It is disappointing that a minority of parents have chosen to take this course of action which merely adds disruption for the vast majority.

“We understand parents’ disappointment, however the decision to close a school is never taken lightly.”

The council said it had 8,500 surplus primary places across North Lanarkshire, equivalent to 40 average-sized schools.

The spokesman added: “This means we are heating, lighting and maintaining empty classrooms at a time when we face unprecedented financial challenges.”