Argyll and Bute Council seriously misleads Holyrood Education Committee

And they’ve done it in writing.

On 3rd December 2013, Argyll and Bute Council made a written  submission of evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee, which is considering issues around the Children and Young People Bill.

The fiction

Here are the two critical paragraphs of that evidence – and the emphases are ours:

2. Background Context

’2.1 In 2010 Argyll and Bute Council undertook a consultation exercise around each of its four administrative areas on the future of education services and sought feedback on priorities and proposals for the investment of resources. … From that feedback the Council undertook a review of its school estate and identified an initial long leet of 26 primary schools it wished to conduct an informal consultation on with communities to explore school mergers.

’2.2 Following a further review of the proposals this long leet was reduced to a short leet of 12 proposed school mergers on which the Council proposed to conduct a statutory consultation in terms of the Schools Consultation (Scotland) Act 2010. The consultation commenced on 3rd May 2011 with an intended end date of 30thJune 2011 and the programme of public meetings for each school commenced in May 2011. The programme was ceased following the Council’s consideration of the request from the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning for a moratorium on school closures and the establishment of the Commission for Rural Education.’

The minuted fact, which contradicts this narrative, is that at a council meeting on 25th November 2010 the council agreed to take to statutory consultation for closure and amalgamation a list of 25 primary schools.

What they told the Education Committee was ‘a long leet’ was no less than a list of 25 intended closures – as evidenced in the decision to take all 25 from the original 26 to statutory consultation.

A 26th school was reprieved because the proposal had been to have two batches of tinies rowed in an open boat in all weathers and at all times of the year, in two successive trips from their home Isle of Luing, to be bussed together to school on the mainland.

What they told the Education Committee was a final ‘short leet’ of 12 drawn from the non ‘long leet’ was no such thing either. The new Education Spokesperson was minuted on 5th January 2011 as being tasked to bring forwards ‘a new set of proposals’ after the council’s abrupt withdrawal from statutory consultation of the fatally flawed first set of 25. The second list also contained schools like Clachan which had not previously been considered for closure.

A side interest is that the proposal papers for the later attempt to take 12 closure proposals to statutory consultation were no more secure than the first lot. They too would have had to be withdrawn and the SRSN was ready to bowl again.

However, the council was thrown a lifeline by the Education Secretary, Michael Russell, in his offer of the moratorium on school closures to create space for the quite pointless Rural Schools Commission to canter around the playground.

The facts – from the council meeting of 25th November 2010

Neither the words nor the concept of ‘long leet’ and ‘short leet’ were part of Argyll and Bute Council’s vocabulary over the span of the tumultuous conflicts between the people and the council in its proposed revision of its primary school estate over 2010-2011.

The Council meeting on 25th November 2010 saw a dramatic change of administration midstream. In protest against the planned closures, the SNP group walked out of power as the junior partner in a Councilor Walsh led coalition – and were replaced during an intermission by the Liberal Democrat and Conservative groups.

The meeting then decided as minuted below under Item 9. EDUCATION REVIEW – REVIEW OF THE SCHOOL ESTATE – and again the emphases are ours:

‘Motion

’1.    That the Council notes the contents of the reports, and the proposals at Annexes 1-6 thereof; and

’2.    That the Council agrees the recommendations numbered 1-4 contained within the report at Annex 2, thereof, Review of the School Estate – Amalgamation Proposals. Specifically, under recommendation number 3, that Council agrees to proceed to statutory consultation in respect of:

1.    Keills with Port Charlotte
2.    Ulva with Dervaig
3.    Lochdonhead with Salen
4.    North Bute with Rothesay
5.    Toward with Innellan
6.    Kilmodan with Strachur/Tighnabruaich
7.    Luss with Hermitage Primary
8.    Rosneath and Kilcreggan with Garelochead
9.    Parklands with Hermitage Academy/John Logie Baird
10.    Southend with Drumlemble
11.    Strone with Sandbank
12.    St Kieran’s with Castlehill
13.    Ardchattan, Achaleven and Barcaldine with Lochnell
14.    Kilchrenan with Taynuilt
15.    Ardchonnel with Dalmally/Kilmartin
16.    Skipness, Rhunahaorine and Glenbarr with Clachan
17.    Ashfield with Tayvallich
18.    Achahoish with Ardrishaig
19.    Glassary and Minard with Lochgilphead

’3.    That the Council agrees the recommendation by the Executive Director of Community Services to withdraw the proposal to amalgamate Luing Primary School with Easdale Primary School.

‘Moved by Councillor Walsh, seconded by Councillor Marshall.’

We would point out that the number of schools listed for closure and amalgamation with the last named school/s in each item if the 19-strong list above – total 25 schools; and that Item 9:3 above accounts for the 26th school in the original list.

This motion was passed by the narrowest possible margin in a 36 seat council: 19-17; and became a council decision at that point.

This flatly contradicts the written evidence above that Argyll and Bute Council gave to the Education Commission a few days ago on on 3rd December 2013:

‘[2.1]…  ‘In 2010… the Council… identified an initial long leet of 26 primary schools it wished to conduct an informal consultation on with communities to explore school mergers.

The fact is that, contrary to this written statement to the parliamentary committee, the Council had agreed, on a roll-call vote majority on 25th November 2010, formally to move 25 schools to statutory consultation on closure and amalgamation with other schools; and to remove the 26th school from the list.

The facts – from the council meeting of 5th January 2011

A second crucial council meeting came on 5th January 2011, one requisitioned by the SNP group under Standing Orders to consider a submission by the Scottish Rural Schools Network [SRSN] demonstrating the inability of the council’s school closure proposal paper.

The SRSN paper was distributed in advance to every councillor. It was the formal and actual focus of the meeting called.

That meeting resulted in the agreed abandonment of all 25 of the agreed statutory closure consultations – albeit under the most transparently dishonest set of veils ever seen danced.

After that point there were neither any statutory consultations in progress nor was there any list of any kind. The council had left the field.

The straightforward part of the minute records – and the emphases are ours:

‘e2) agrees that in the light of all the above factors, the current consultation process should be halted and authorises the Spokesperson for Education to bring forward a new set of consultation proposals to reflect on the consultation feedback already submitted and the knowledge acquired by the Spokesperson on her visits to schools across Argyll & Bute.’

‘All of the above factors’ specified above, were a political scattershot, aimed at the Scottish Government, the Education Minister, funding…, attempting to blame anyone and anything rather than accept responsibility for a set of school closure proposal papers whose thoroughgoing inability had been demonstrated beyond contest by SRSN.

The SRSN’s demolition job

SRSN’s submission proved the Council’s papers routinely to be inaccurate.

  • They had failed to understand the Scottish Government’s GAE [Grant Aided Expenditure] funding formula for small rural schools of 69 or fewer pupils – and had got their sums wrong.
  • They had not produced proposals compliant with some key requirements of the 2010 Schools Act.
  • They had got school capacity figures wrong.
  • They had not even established the status of the lease on Achahoish School, proposed for closure – at which point the terms of the lease would have seen it revert to the landowner, leaving the council with no asset from what had been a new-build school.

The SRSN paper unheatedly summed up its purpose and the failures which it demonstrated:

‘The errors and inaccuracies contained in the reports presented to council on the 25th September 2010 stretch into almost every facet of the consultation proposal.

‘Some areas, such as the educational benefit of large peer groups, are subject to debate and opinion. It is not intended to focus on these debateable elements in this report, important as they are.

‘Instead it is intended to concentrate on areas in which the errors are quantifiable and demonstrable. For simplification these will be broken down into main subject areas:

  • Grant Aided Expenditure
  • Roll Projections
  • Staff savings
  • Occupancy
  • Educational Benefit
  • Transport’

This is a pretty comprehensive cluster of core areas in which the SRSN demonstrated the failure of the council proposals – a matter to which we will return later this week.

In the meantime, Audit Scotland should reflect on the gullibility with which they accepted the word of a council so regularly proven to swerve the truth, that there was no substance to the SRSN submission – and then effectively endorse that assurance in their own recently published report on affairs at Argyll and Bute Council.

Irresponsibly, the national audit commission chose simply to repeat, without question, what the council had told them: ‘ ”In April 2011 the council was provided with an update on the pre-consultation activities. A report was also provided to councillors refuting allegations by the Scottish Rural Schools Network that officers misrepresented information. The council accepted the allegations were untrue and agreed to proceed to the statutory consultation phase.’

This relates to the later new set of 12 equally unable closure proposals. The report mentioned came from Education Director, Cleland Sneddon, author and determined advocate for his proposals and regularly, to our first hand and reported observation, holding the truth hostage to his need to persuade.

Back on 5th January 2011, faced with the evidence in the SRSN submission, the council had beaten an immediate and comprehensive retreat from its attempt on the first 25  schools. That precedent identifies the more reliable agent in the matter.

Why did the council do something so eminently discoverable?

This is not a council with a track record of competence so the likely reason for this bizarre action would be far from flattering.

However, were they trying to be manipulative of the Education Committee? That would certainly be part of their modus operandi.

This committee has the power to introduce amendments to the 2010 Act – independent of the Government’s take on the matter. Ironically, the committee has been given this authority because of the mess Argyll and Bute Council created in its contortions with the Act in 2010-11.

COSLA, of which current Council Leader Dick Walsh is slavishly supportive, has effectively declared war on the Education Secretary over his retention of the Educational Benefit Statement the Act requires and which the Rural Education Commission had advised should be dropped.

Were Argyll and Bute Council trying hard to downplay their own misdemeanours in 2010-11 in order to lull the Education Committee into feeling that there is no real reason for them to amend this poorly framed and much abused piece of legislation?

Or were they just trying in their blundering way, to recast the way things really were?

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4 Responses to Argyll and Bute Council seriously misleads Holyrood Education Committee

  1. I read the submission about a week or so ago. An astounding airbrushing of history. This is quite clearly not an issue of semantics. It is an embarrassing attempt to paint the council in a better light than their actions merit.

    Just further evidence that Cllr Walsh’s claims that the recent statutory report had hard messages which had to be addressed (or words to that effect) was nothing more than empty words. Nothing has changed in the culture of the council.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 29 Thumb down 1

  2. It was clever politics for any attempt to adjust the submission would be criticised for contradicting the experts (new terminology for officers) who had written the submission or indeed just semantics. The only comfort will be the large pinch of salt taken with this evidence by the Committee.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  3. Different Government; same Jackanory concerning schools; granted in some places amalgamations could potentially be beneficial to the Council purse with little in the way of disruptions to children and the rural communities, but at the other end children are put in a potentially hazardous situation and remote communities loose their last remaining motivation for social cohesion.

    It appears that some in the present Council, like some back during the last tranche of school closures have no interest in neither children (our legacy) nor the rural communities (Scotland’s legacy).

    At least one school has been given a reprieve due to a small boat crossing…the same could not be said about the Kerrera Primary School, which was closed, where the Council suggested that if a four and a half year old child could not get home he could be put into the Hostel !

    Back then, supporting schools, those that would have spoken out about the closures, were ‘advised; keep your head down or you could be next’! I guess little changes in Council/Government threats/promises…did I not read a short while ago that the Education Minister stated; ‘No school closures if I get elected’?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  4. Tut-tut. Well whoever submitted that evidence is definitely on Santa’s naughty list

    AGAIN!

    At some point, you would think they’d realise we are watching everything they say and do, but I suppose that requires common sense, something this council and it’s officers completely lack.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 4

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