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Highland Council votes to keep attainment in dire school buildings secret

By Scott Maclennan

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St Clements School. Picture: James Mackenzie.
St Clements School. Picture: James Mackenzie.

WITH the worst school estate in Scotland and poor, though improving results in literacy and numeracy performance, Highland Council has voted to keep work on the impact on pupil attainment in poor school buildings a secret.

Parental frustration voiced in recent months was echoed in the impatience of opposition councillors with education chairman John Finlayson’s “business as usual” approach, leading one to ask “why even bother?” being a Highland councillor.

At yesterday’s full meeting of the council, Conservative group leader Helen Crawford sought to have the impact of the “poor school estate” on attainment brought forward for discussion and public scrutiny at a future meeting of the education committee.

At present such discussion is limited to private meetings only.

Councillor Helen Crawford outside Beauly Primary School. Picture: James Mackenzie.
Councillor Helen Crawford outside Beauly Primary School. Picture: James Mackenzie.

She was defeated in that effort, though, as separate opposition moves to have the council declare a “school estate emergency” and call on the First Minister for action was yet to be debated as the Courier went to press.

Cllr Crawford based her case for more openness on national Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence results published by the Scottish Government this week.

Measuring literacy and numeracy competence at various stages, while there were improvements within Highland’s own performance compared to previous years, the region still languished near the bottom of every single ranking compared to other parts of the country.

She said: “Highland ranks nationally as follows: for literacy – we now rank equal bottom with Dumfries and Galloway; for numeracy, we now share the lowest ranking with Clackmannanshire and Shetland.”

The Highlands failed to match or exceed the Scottish average for reading, writing, listening, talking, literacy, or numeracy at all levels.

“We have some of the poorest school estate in Scotland with thousands of our children being educated in crumbling buildings,” Cllr Crawford added, seeking too link that to poor pupil performance.

Councillor John Finlayson.
Councillor John Finlayson.

Cllr Finlayson, however, questioned the impact of school conditions on attainment and described gathering the information sought by Cllr Crawford as a waste of officials’ and teachers’ time.

He said: “School-based attainment meetings will continue to take place on a regular basis and the recent attainment action plan will continue to be used to reduce the poverty-related attainment in our schools.

“Both of these actions will of course include looking at whatever barriers influence attainment, including assessing the impact learning environments and school buildings have on pupil attainment and achievement.

“Carrying out the specific assessment asked for in this amendment will not give us any information that we do not already have and our officers’ time, and our teachers’ time is better spent supporting schools.”

At that point, 17 minutes into the debate, SNP councillors Drew Miller and Paul Oldham tried to draw a line in the debate by calling a vote and moving on to the next item.

Councillor Andrew Jarvie.
Councillor Andrew Jarvie.

Highland Alliance councillor Andrew Jarvie said: “It is on days like this that I actually wonder – why even bother?

“We have, yet again, The Highland Council ranking bottom and even the mere idea of debating it the members of administration are already trying to cut that debate short because it’s convenient.

“Really, just what is genuinely the point of being a councillor here?”

Training his fire on Cllr Finlayson in particular he asked “what’s actually changing?”

“You say concrete action. What kind of concrete is it? RAAC? Because it’s crumbling apart, like the school estate.

“When you say ‘business as usual agenda’ I think that pretty much sums up the exact problem with your ‘business as usual’ – business as usual the Highland Council is at the bottom; business as usual our children have the worst literacy and numeracy rate in the country.”

He added: “I mean, we’ve been told for years there’s action going on and ‘trust the process’ and ‘trust the officers’ and ‘you know we’ve got a concrete action plan’, but nothing actually changes.

“We’re still at the bottom.”

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