Am Bratach No. 302
December 2016

‘Clueless’ education bosses bleed support

Support for the education authority in Tongue and Farr probably reached a new low last week when a Highland Council official emailed a document to parents outlining an unwelcome reorganisation of their children’s schooling that could end up in a court of law.

The penny-pinching ideas put forward imagined pupils attending Tongue, Farr, Melvich and Altnaharra “feeder” primaries for five years, then, at the start of P6, transferring to Farr High, to be taught alongside S1 to S3 pupils using a “primary school model” with “specialist input increasing as children moved through school”. Furthermore, P1 pupils in Altnaharra Primary would be shunted into the school’s nursery class to be taught by a “school support assistant” rather than a teacher.

The document was attached to an email sent out by Barry Northedge, a quality improvement officer, on November 22, to a group of parents’ representatives and teachers who had attended a meeting with education officials, including Mr Northedge, the day before.

A flurry of emails between parents and senior officials followed Mr Northedge’s bombshell.

Jim Steven, head of education services at the council, provided the first line of defence, denying any of the ideas put forward were in prospect, declaring that “no proposal will go before the members in January which sets out plans for P6 and P7 pupils going to Farr”. He added: “One last thing — please be assured I do not have a secret agenda for your area”.

Next up was Jacquelyn Jennett, a care and learning manager, who explained that “the information that Barry [Northedge] sent out was devised by the head teachers and some council leads when asked to think how we could be more creative and innovative around the management of Farr ASG [Associated Schools Group]”. The head teachers and council “leads” responsible are not named.

In another email, Natalie Bird, chairwoman of Melvich Parent Council, said she had been “totally misled” by the meeting she had attended on November 21.

Councillor Linda Munro, Bettyhill, one of three councillors representing the area on Highland Council, was as puzzled as the parents, stating in a shared email that the plan found in Mr Northedge’s paper was “not the proposal Jim [Steven] and I discussed nor is it the proposal I publicly supported”.

The unfolding drama forms part of a grand plan hatched by education officials which would create a “cluster” arrangement of head and depute head teachers, all based at Farr High in what its promoters like to call a “campus”. The general idea had been firmly rejected by parents in the past. This latest twist, say critics, would inevitably lead to a reduction in staff in the feeder schools and reduce dramatically their viability.

All the schools except Tongue are reliant on temporary head teachers and have been for some years. Highland Council even stopped advertising for primary head teachers three years ago and for a head teacher for Farr High two years ago, we understand.

A concerned parent, who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, warned: “Whether they’re trying to close schools deliberately, or not, I do not know, but the reality is that if they carry on the way that they are, the danger is that the primary schools will close themselves because there will be a lack of families with children prepared to live in the area.”

A council spokeswoman stated: “The ‘proposal’ [their quotation marks] that has now been shared, was intended as a discussion paper following the initial head teacher workshops in September-October and then shared with members at a briefing on October 24. It was then intended that further, more detailed, discussion take place with the head teachers, members, union representatives etc, prior to a report to the education, children and adult services committee in January 2017 which would seek approval for changes to school management structures in some schools in August 2017. Following approval at committee then engagement and consultation with parents and local communities would begin.

“It is regrettable that in some areas the plan and timescales have not been adhered to and therefore there may be the impression that these proposals are more advanced than they actually are. There is still a considerable amount of work to do in working through the possible arrangements for August 2017 in terms of what is practical and feasible.”

The parent quoted earlier commented: “Their reply shows that the council seem to still be clueless as to what they’re doing.

“Everything’s been done in an underhand way and they are continuing to be underhand. They can’t produce a clear document telling people what they’re suggesting. I don’t think many people have faith any more in the staff of the education department to do anything sensibly or competently.”

He concluded: “A central principle of the Scottish education system is there should be equal opportunity for all children. These changes the council is forcing upon us are clearly primarily for cost-cutting purposes, and will undoubtedly reduce the quality of our children’s education. Why should we accept this, and why haven’t our councillors got the backbone to stop this disgraceful behaviour by incompetent and arrogant council officials?”

An EIS spokesman said: “All primary and secondary pupils have a statutory right to education, delivered by appropriately qualified and professionally registered teachers. While different models of delivery exist around the country, reflecting local circumstances, all pupils retain their statutory right to a proper education that is appropriate to their age and stage of development.

“All decisions on modes of delivery at local level must primarily be based on the best interest of pupils, rather than what is the most convenient or affordable option for the local authority.”

As we went to press, Farr High and Farr Primary parent councils had called a special meeting for November 28 to discuss the plans for future schools management. The email calling the meeting refers to a policy document, presumably the one sent by Mr Northedge, which it states is “barely understandable as a project plan”.

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