Earlier today Argyll and Bute Council issued an odd press release, entitled ‘Response to allegations made by ARSN‘ (Argyll Rural Schools Network’.
In fact the document concerns itself with a series of evidenced charges from several sources of:
- misleading if not mischievous use of material from inappropriate research reports – laid by the Argyll Rural Schools Network (ARSN) and reported in The Herald and in For Argyll, among others)
- fundamental errors of calculation and understanding in reference to the financial impact of the closures on the Scottish Government’s Grant Aided Expenditure funding to local authorities – laid by the Scottish Rural Schools Network (SRSN) and published in For Argyll)
- fundamental errors in the statistical evidence presented in support of a false projection of rapid and significant decline in Argyll’s rural primary school rolls – laid on the basis of work done by SRSN and For Argyll and published in For Argyll)
Before we go any further, For Argyll and the Scottish Rural Schools Network would wish to make it clear that we stand by the absolute accuracy of every one of our identifications of fundamental flaws in the proposals as described above – and that list is now longer.
Moreover, this does not now rest alone on the acknowledged expertise of the Scottish Rural Schools Network team and on the security of their understanding of the GAE funding mechanism.
SRSN submitted both its own and the council’s calculations – obtained under Freedom of Information – to independent expert scrutiny.
Jim and Margaret Cuthbert, among the top mathematicians, statitisticans and economists in Scotland – agreed to interrogate both sets of calculations. They have recently pronounced, with accompanying algebraic proof, that the Scottish Rural Schools Network calculations are accurate.
For interest, here are brief professional biographies for the Cuthberts.
- ‘Jim Cuthbert was born in Scotland in 1946. He has an M.A. in mathematics and economics from Glasgow University, an M.Sc. in mathematics and statistics from the same university, and a D. Phil. from Sussex University in probability theory. He lectured in statistics at Glasgow University from 1970 to 1974. In that year, he joined the United Kingdom civil service as a statistician, where he worked in the Scottish Office, in the areas of local government finance, housing, education and the environment. From 1978 to 1980, he spent two years in the Treasury, working in the cash limits division. In 1986, he spent a period on secondment at the OECD. He was latterly Scottish Office Chief Statistician, taking early retirement in 1997. Since then he has pursued a number of interests, including research and consultancy. His research interests lie particularly in the areas of Scotland’s public finances and the Scottish economy, and in certain aspects of purchasing power parities. He has worked with the OECD and the Australian Government, and presented papers at the World Bank, and for the Taiwanese Government’.
- ‘Margaret Cuthbert was born in Paisley in Scotland in 1946 and graduated in Economics and Statistics from Glasgow University in 1968. She began her career as an economist in ICI before moving to a lecturer post in econometrics at Glasgow University. In 1975 she began economics and business consultancy work, combining this with periods in Heriot Watt University, Strathclyde University and the OECD. In 1980, she edited and contributed to “Public Expenditure in Scotland”, one of the few texts analysing the Scottish economy written in the period after the first Devolution referendum. She set up her own economics consultancy company in 1989, primarily concentrating on economic issues in Scotland. 1997 saw a change of gear. The Cuthberts set up a new company with both of them doing consultancy and with both devoting more time to research’.
The oxygen of publicity
The first question to be asked of this shrill and rather discombobulated press release is why the Executive Director of Community Services, Cleland Sneddon, who has signed the press release, chose to target ARSN in his title.
It is, of course, publicity that a 24 day-old collaborative forum of parent councils in rural Argyll and the Isles could only dream about. It recognises them as a major player.
This is the first public response the council has made to the criticisms of its discredited school closure proposals. These are already the subject of multiple parliamentary questions and urgent requests by senior and respected MSPs from all parties for ministerial meetings to address what is a fully blown crisis in Argyll and Bute.
That Sneddon has chosen to attack ARSN is tribute to the impact of this doughty and highly effective collaborative body.
By standing together, sharing significant expertise and experience, ARSN is, in this attempted attack, recognised to be exactly what it was set up to be – a threat to the council’s traditionally successful use of divide-and-rule tactics.
Sneddon, of course, did not intend to pay ARSN this tribute. Like any bully, he thought he was launching a killer blow against the easy target of an infant organisation – the newest of the three principal prosecutors of these fundamentally flawed proposals. (Was it Margaret Thatcher who said that an attack by Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep? No. It was Denis Healey – see Comment.)
How wrong was Sneddon. ARSN has established its credentials as a resourceful and focused organisation whose efforts have already attracted the attention of the national press. The hapless Sneddon has, in one bungled attack attempt, underlined ARSN’s potency and drawn attention to the broad spectrum media interest in its campaign.
ARSN deserves profound respect.
ARSN’s charge and the Sneddon response
Sneddon’s attempt to destroy ARSN by focusing his attentions on it are clear from the volume of space he gives over to ARSNs evidenced accusation that, at the meeting on 25th November 2010, he, Sneddon, had ‘deliberately misled or deceived’ the councillors.
There is no doubt at all that he had indeed done just this – and in other matters as well as those highlighted by ARSN. (He twice told councillors during that meeting that the six week consultation period originally chosen by the council to accelerate the progress of these discredited proposals was ‘the statutory limit’, where in fact it is the statutory minimum.)
ARSN had accused the council of ‘sexing up’ the ‘dodgy dossier’ of the proposals in misapplying sections from two research reports on other matters – one being the Hall Aitken Outer Hebrides Migration Study.
Sneddon had confidently told councillors at that meeting that this report ‘proved’ that rural schools were not of any great significance in supporting inward migration to remote rural communities.
ARSN contacted the authors of the Outer Hebrides Migration Study and were able to report their professional anger at the misuse of their results. These had arisen from research on different target issues. In their expert opinion, the researchers were clear that they would not feel comfortable in applying such material in support of Sneddon’s conclusions.
The point is that the gathering of information from interviewees through the instrument of questionnaires is, when properly done, a very precise science. Questions are framed to direct their audience’s attention to the specific and sometimes underlying issues the researchers are interested to probe. Answers to such questions cannot be farmed for other purposes and divorced from their original focus.
But the precise world of statistics is foreign to Sneddon.
He shocked knowing members of his audience at the council meeting on 2nd November when he announced – with a sort of bithe self-congratulation, that he had never even heard of Scottish Neighbourhood Statistics until For Argyll had evidenced them in our exposure of the fundamental flaws in the proposals’ school roll projections.
The Scottish Neighbourhood Statistics are the datazone used by all Scottish local authorities, and, by his own admission, Sneddon is ‘on his seventh local authority’.
At the end of the press release, the spluttering Sneddon tries to defend his misapplication of the material in the research reports used by saying: ‘The Council accepts that neither of the referenced research reports were written with the intention of them being used as an argument for progressing school mergers nor is it intended that it should enter a debate with the research authors to try to draw them into a pressured argument about their findings’.
You bet they don’t intend to enter into debate with anyone who actually knows what they are talking about.
The council’s modus operandi throughout this disaster has been to go to ground and leave the player on repeat that ‘the proposals are not flawed’ and that ‘the calculations are accurate’. QED? Not.
The Sneddon decoys
In an early whinge in this presumably therapeutic document, Sneddon says: ‘The Council has actually experienced a form of campaign before a consultation commences…’
Yet at the meeting on 25th November Sneddon bizarrely criticised communities for not having come forward with ‘creative alternatives’ to closure. Yet at that time,consultation had not yet begun and did not do so until 13th December 2010 – an ominous date.
Moreover, at the press conference after the earlier meeting on 2nd November (when the proposals were sent back for corrections which were largely never made), For Argyll questioned why the Council had chosen to go for the statutory minimum period of six weeks consultation. We were concerned about the usefulness of so short a time for a programme of, then, 26 closure proposals covering every area of Argyll and four of its islands.
CEO Sally Loudon’s response to this question was to say that the pre-consultation period after the publication of the proposals – which had taken place several days before that meeting – was effectively part of the consultation process.
Neither Loudon nor Sneddon can legitimately have it both ways.
Then, in this press release Sneddon attempts to deflect attention away from the fundamental structural flaws the Scottish Rural Schools Network and For Argyll have identified in the council’s case to close this swathe of rural schools.
He has done this by focusing on a single issue which was of later and minor concern to us although it was, rightly, of immediate and continuing concern to communities fighting to save their schools.
He says: ‘What were described as flaws predominantly related to disagreement over the accuracy of information contained in the document, around 80% of which was pupil transport related.’
This is flatly and demonstrably untrue. In fact, For Argyll, the principal medium for criticism, did not mention transport until after the first council meeting on 2nd November where it was the principal focus of councillors’ criticisms.
Under sustained pressure from members on that occasion, Cleland Sneddon gave an assurance that any school whose pupils could be shown to have to make a journey of over 45 minutes each way to their designated receiving school would automatically be taken off the closure list.
We later reported some parent councils’ work in demonstrating that the required journeys for their small children were indeed over 45 mins, The Council was eventually compelled to admit that the journey for children from the Isle of Luing – in an open boat at all times of the year and then by bus to Ellenabeich – was unachievable in 45 minutes. Luing came off the list.
In other equally well documented cases the council has simply insisted against the evidence that their journey time calculations are correct. This assertion includes the risible allowance of a full 30 seconds for small children and their bags to be picked up at the roadside and secured inside the vehicle.
The real focus of criticism
What For Argyll and SRSN did focus on in the pre-consultation period – as we have since – are principally issues of non-compliance with the governing legislation – now confirmed as correct by the grounds for the Government call-in of four Western Isles closure proposals.
Sneddon’s press release makes no mention of this – nor was he likely to do so in the light of the irrefutable evidence from this precedent demonstrating a serious disregard for due diligence in which both he and CEO Sally Loudon have been culpably negligent.
In parallel with this, SRSN focused on serious errors in the calculations of the Grant Aided Expenditure. This later became an awareness of the fact that miscalculations had arisen, in part, from a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the GAE mechanism works.
In passing reference to this matter in his press release – and in a tacit admission of possible error never made explicit, Sneddon says ‘Even if the overstated figure of £2,644 referred to by the Rural Schools Network were used it would only have a limited impact. The total GAE loss would rise from £374,000 to £542,000 an increase of only £168,000 against the estimated saving of £1.9m’.
This sum that Sneddon so casually tosses off as of little significance is a 45% error and amounts to over 8.8% of the projected savings – which are overclaimed in several other respects, as we can show.
Together SRSN and we also identified serious distortions in the statistical ‘evidence’ in the council papers, relating to the projection of school roll numbers.
Under FoI we received the base calculations behind the council’s projections – and these proved the particular error SRSN had suspected must lie behind the mistake. It provided a key argument in the case to close schools which the proposals had wrongly alleged were facing rapid and serious decline.
We did not acknowledge what Sneddon refers to as ‘corrections’ because they were not ‘corrections’, they were confirmations.
We needed only to rest our case on what we had initially said, which remains correct – with the single addition that now we can show exactly how the council made its ‘mistake’.
What we cannot say is whether this was accidental or disingenuous, given that it artificially ramped up the case for closure.
The attempt to prevent the proposals going to consultation
For Argyll and SRSN did indeed attempt, as Sneddon alleges, to have these closure proposals withdrawn before consultation.
We did so because we had done forensic investigative work and discovered the serious flaws at the heart of the proposals.
We wished to protect the threatened schools from being subjected to scrutiny that was neither legally nor evidentially competent.
We wished to prevent the avoidable waste of significant financial commitment to a doomed consultation process.
We wished to try to prevent the reputational damage to a region which has always deserved and needed the best possible local government and is now subject to the worst.
Incompetence, negligence and arrogance
Sneddon says that the issue of school closures is always emotive – and indeed it is.
What he seems unable to do is to look beyond that.
He and the council must understand that what is fiercely emotive in this instance is the level of negligence, incompetence and arrogance which has shaped the production and stubborn defence of these proposals. They are so unable as an instrument to close a school that they are described by the experienced SRSN (whose work has now been independently verified by the Cuthberts) as: ‘the worst we’ve seen’.
What is powerfully emotive is that good schools, good pupils, good parent councils are being put to the rack on the basis of work that is ignorant in the most fundamental sense, flawed beyond redemption yet thought appropriate to inflict a death sentence on 22 or 23 rural communities that, in the nature of the place, are the stuff of Argyll.
Cleland, like his discredited and departed ‘consultant’, Keir Bloomer, is essentially a busker. Rhyme a few old tales. Rattle a can. Head off to the next (eighth?) local authority.
On the evidence of his performance in this process, busking is how Sneddon gets by, but this time he has been found out.
He did not even bother to familiarise himself with the statutory requirements of the law to which his proposals are obliged to conform. Already, if these proposals are not withdrawn, every one of them will have to be called in by the Scottish Government on the grounds of fundamental non-compliance with the 2010 Act. The Western Isles precedent makes this inevitable – and the Argyll proposals are even farther from compliance than those in the Western Isles.
The Argyll papers propose to close 25 rural primary schools.
Two elements are omitted from every one of these closure proposals – a consideration of viable alternatives to closure; and an assessment of the impact on the host community of the closure of its school.
Sneddon and his similarly negligent CEO, Sally Loudon, together misleadingly defended these omissions. Moreover they formally recommended that councillors approve the documents to go out to statutory public consultation.
In doing so they licensed the omission of key obligations of the law as it specifically applies to proposals to close rural schools. The flaws are as legalistic and as fundamental as that.
Anyone attempting to deny that this is culpable negligence of the most serious kind and a disregard for due diligence cannot hope to be taken seriously.
The evidence is there. It is underwritten in the overriding of the fundamental requirements of the 2010 Act. And it is there is the statements both Sneddon and Loudon made on 25th November. These, reported in our coverage of the Western Isles precedent, displayed either their utter ignorance of the law that should have been their first port of call – or an actionable attempt to mislead councillors into putting their names to documents lacking legal competence.
And nineteen noodles did just that on the 25th November..
Call for resignations of CEO, Executive Director for Community Services and Finance Director
The Scottish Government’s judgments in calling in the Western Isles closure proposals on the grounds of non-compliance with the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 and the Cuthberts positive verification of the accuracy of the SRSN’s calculations and statistics vindicate every charge of incompetence that the Scottish Rural Schools Network and For Argyll have brought against these proposals.
We are shocked by the nature and profundity of the original errors of omission, of execution and of judgment.
We are unable to defend in any way the inability of the most senior staff in the council to understand the fundamental legal and mathematical issues that have led to this debacle.
We condemn their corporate irresponsibility in deciding to force into formal being, without serious interrogation of the security of the documents and at unaffordable expense, a consultation process which will now have to be aborted.
Cleland Sneddon has, in this press release, irrevocably associated Finance Director Bruce West with this performance and from our own evidence, it has been clear that West has been unable even to identify a laughably fundamental error underpinning his calculations.
We cannot see that this situation is recoverable, either in terms of the fatally flawed proposals or in terms of these fatally flawed senior managers at the council.
Together, SRSN, ARSN and For Argyll have have shown that:
- they were negligent of due diligence in ignoring the governing legislation
- they offered councillors false security in exhorting them to approve legally unable proposals for consultation
- they conspired with a hired consultant to disguise evidence that did not accord with their wishes to close schools
- they misapplied evidence from inappropriate sources to shore up an indefensible argument
- they were incompetent in understanding the operation of the GAE mechanism that controls the calculation of the council’s entire annual revenue grant
- they were fiscally irresponsible in their willingness to commit the council to avoidable expense in the interests of saving face
- and they have brought Argyll and Bute Council into national disrepute.
In short we have shown unarguably that these proposals and those who have persisted in forcing them into the public domain are incompetent, careless, unreliable and finished.
In For Argyll’s evidenced opinion, the officers responsible, whom we have identified in the heading of this section, must go and they must go now. There is no basis for confidence in their competence or in their probity.
Argyll cannot afford any more of this.