People power wins through on a day of high drama

Campaigners march on the council (David Robertson)

Following one of the most dramatic days ever witnessed in the Moray Council chamber the ruling administration have been forced to think again over one of their main policies.

Last year people power forced an embarrassing eleventh-hour about turn by the Independent and Conservative administration when the threat of legal action saw three libraries being saved from closure.

On Monday, the people spoke again as several administration group council members voted against their leadership and effectively threw out the findings of a £60,000 consultancy on the future of Moray’s schools.

Forres councillor George Alexander spoke passionately about how the report was not about school closures and so its content should be ratified – however, others begged to differ, pointing out that while the initial task may well have been a ‘Sustainable Education Review’ the resulting report made school closure recommendations that were simply unacceptable to the people of Moray.

By the time the dust settled on a 16-8 defeat for the administration, the council leader Allan Wright had already penned his resignation, admitting that the breaking of ranks by independent and Tory colleagues was too much to take.

One of the most vocal and effective campaigns was that conducted by those connected with the only secondary school consultant’s considered ripe for closure, Milne’s High.

Theirs was a determined argument based not on sentiment but on the attainment record of one of Moray’s finest schools. Following Monday’s decision a delighted spokeswoman for the campaign said: “The Save Milne’s High Community Action Group is absolutely delighted at the outcome of the Council meeting today.

“We would sincerely like to thank the 16 Councillors who voted to keep Milne’s safe especially our three local representatives – Margot Howe, Sean Morton and Douglas Ross, they have been so supportive.

“We would also like to thank the Milne’s community (Fochabers, Mosstodloch & Lhanbryde) for their fantastic support during the campaign, we couldn’t have done it without them!”

Outside the council chamber (David Robertson)

It was a motion by Councillor Sean Morton, backed by Councillor Douglas Ross, that set the scene for the drama on Monday when he moved that no secondary schools should be closed in Moray – the resulting 16-8 vote in favour signalled the game was up for ruling administration.

That led to the same margin of victory for a five-year moratorium on any rural school closures with additional agreement to look again at school provision in Forres and Elgin.

A jubilant Councillor Morton said: “I am absolutely ecstatic by how today went.

“We managed to talk things through and come to the right conclusion. Councillor Ross and I presented the most comprehensive plan and by the time all the voting was coming to a close, it was clear it was the one that had most support.

“I’m delighted the SNP and the Convenor agreed to incorporate it in their plan. Milne’s is saved, as are rural schools. Not only that, we laid down a marker for the future – we need all eight secondary schools.

“What we need to do now is turn our attention to better schools. Fewer does not mean better.

“Let’s be creative so all our schools are the best they can be with distance learning ensuring all subjects are available to all of our young people.”

The SNP had thrown the Sustainable Education Review into turmoil last week when they announced that they would oppose the Caledonian Economics report – an unexpected move that ultimately led to Monday’s dramatic decision.

Leader of the SNP group, Councillor Pearl Paul, said: “SNP Councillors considered very carefully the issues before us, we set out our position in advance of the Council meeting and, as a result, the Council’s Convener accepted our proposals to save our rural schools in Moray, which are at the heart of our communities and deserve our support.

“The SNP recognises the importance of using the Sustainable Education Review report as a baseline for developing future education provision in Moray.

“There are various proposed improvements in the report that merit further investigation – but this is long-term work to improve the education of our children and while that work goes on it is totally unacceptable to have the axe hanging over schools the length and breadth of Moray creating community division and uncertainty.

“The SNP will work constructively to tackle issues such as attracting teachers to Moray, looking at management and support structures within schools, looking at creative curriculum delivery in partnership with Moray College UHI and looking at zoning for our schools and various other significant areas that can have a major impact on improving education.”

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