How to avoid the closure of rural schools with data

escuelas_bigMadrid, 28 May 2013 – The right of Access to information isn’t just something that deals with transparency in an abstract, disconnected manner, it is also a way of improving day-to-day life through access to objective information. Some of the stories about the excommissioner for information of Scotland, Kevin Dunion, demonstrate the practical application of this right, through concrete victories. How would these cases run in Spain? This is something that is very difficult to compare without a law that requires public administrations to respond to citizens questions. But we will try.

How many decisions do our leaders make every day? How many of them are based on reasoned analysis and are faithful to reality? How many, on the other hand, are based on mere assumptions or hunches? In Spain it is impossible to know.  If a councilor dictates a standard based on a preliminary analysis, it is only on very rare occasions that this would become publicly accessible. Even the amended version of the current Law of Transparency and Good Governance, currently in the parliamentary procedure, doesn’t offer an improvement in this regard. The law does not include in its definition of succeptible documents for analysis, the reports and previous drafts involved in the decision making process.

Under the Freedom of Information Law, Scottish citizens are able to claim these reports. Even better than this, they should receive an answer, except in very exceptional cases. With the backing of the law and thanks to their insistence, a group of parents and teachers were able to stop the closure of 60 rural schools. This case, as much as it shows who was the excommissioner for acces to information form 2003 to 2012, Kevin Dunion, is one of the concrete examples of the ability to achieve improvements in the community through a freedom of information standard.

In 2005, the Scottish Rural Schools Network (SRSN) started campaigning against the closure of 60 rural schools, asking authorities for information about the population of the schools in the affected areas, the capacity of the centers, the distance the children would have to travel after the schools’ closure and the real savings for the Government. With data in hand, the SRSN prepared an alternative report which showed that the official estimates were wrong and that the closures were unjustified. The Scottish Government created an independent Commission to study the issue and imposed a moratorium on closures pending the results of the Commission.

Parents and teachers were able to stop a decision affecting them directly, and moreover, helped to improve the transparency of public administrations in the long run. Since this case, it is mandatory for any plan for the closure of public services to be accompanied by a reasoned and public study that argues the decision, as well as a prior consultation process.

The SRSN victory wouldn’t have been possible without access to the data and a law that supported their requests for access to information. In Spain the situation is quite different: where are the documents that justify the closure of schools and clinics in the villages? In June 2012, Castilla La Mancha announced the closure of some 60 rural schools. These are not the only instances; there have also been school closures in Galicia and Valencia, among other areas. This is because, in recent years, the autonomous communities have been raising the ratio of students necessary to maintain an open center. A spokesman for Castilla La Mancha said the closures are based on quality and not on money, but he has not revealed any reports or studies to support his thesis that education was of a better quality in large schools in cities than in small rural schools.

A similar case is the closing of night-time emergency centers in several towns and cities, first in Catalonia, then in Castilla La Mancha and later in autonomous communities. The Government of María Dolores de Cospedal declared the closure of 21 centers that provided health care during the night in various towns of Castilla La Mancha. Faced with protests and, above all, judicial decisions that knocked down the decision, the Manchego Government has had to backtrack. Even under these circumstances, they have still announced that they are preparing a new plan of closures.

During the debate over the closure of the health centers, the autonomous executive stated that the affected patients should only be moved a few kilometers to be cared for at another center. However, the executive has not revealed his source for this data. A practical cross-check showed that those few kilometers averaged 40, and that the journey could take over 40 minutes.

With data in hand, the numerous citizens who protested against these decisions in Spain could try to demonstrate, as happened in Scotland, that the governments are wrong in enacting all these closures. But Spain is not Scotland.