Elected members have given a stern response to Scottish government plans which risk heaping mounting pressures on head teachers – and taking democratic accountability away from the council as an education authority.
Councillors on the education and families committee were speaking as a draft consultation on the “empowering schools” legislation was brought before them.
Key among the concerns are those relating to the establishment of a head teachers’ charter.
But fears were also raised that children’s services central staff will have a diminished role because most responsibility will either be devolved to head teachers or sit within a so-called regional improvement collaborative.
A paper set before members by head of schools Shona Thompson warned that the “size and significance” of the changes to the role of head teachers could not be under-estimated.
Fifteen of Shetland’s 27 head teachers have teaching responsibilities and limited clerical support, the response warns.
“Head teachers in Shetland are considered the leaders of learning in their schools,” the response states, underlining the “are”.
“However, there is a risk under these proposals that they also need to become school financial and administrative managers with more time spent away from that learning and teaching activity.
“These proposals now add additional responsibilities in terms of costing and curriculum and managing all budgets related to its delivery.”
The response adds that it is “unclear” how the proposals will affect the role of the education and families committee – and also that of the council as an education authority.
“Shetland Islands Council provides an additional £14.8 million from its reserves, on top of the Scottish government grant, required to enable the delivery of education in Shetland. The risk of fragmentation can not be ignored and may lead to isolated decisions which upset the equilibrium of how education is delivered as a whole across the isles.
“There is an inherent risk in head teachers being able to create management and staffing structures that are unsustainable and cannot be funded.”
The response concludes: “We believe the proposals will not benefit head teachers in Shetland, nor will they enhance the delivery of education across Shetland. We would therefore seek meaningful island proofing to support remote and sparsely populated island groups.”
Chairman of education and families, George Smith, said the matter being brought to members was of prime importance.
He said Mrs Thompson had brought forward some “really significant issues” which may need to be faced head-on if education minister John Swinney progresses with the changes.
“Currently, each local authority is required to produce an improvement plan. That requirement is being removed,” he said.
“This committee being removed from any scrutiny of an improvement plan for education in this authority. That is quite far reaching and quite serious in terms of democratic accountability.
“That is absolutely contrary to the agreement that was reached between Cosla and the Scottish government around the establishment of the collaboratives and the role of the collaboratives.
“There is an expectation head teachers will be given more power. They will be asked to take on more duties and take on responsibility for staffing and finances much more.
“The local authority will still be left with employing the head teacher. What is the implication for our head teaching establishment? We have 15 teaching head teachers within the 28.”
He added: “This is the most important piece of work that’s going to come before this committee.”
Mr Smith said island proofing had been stressed when he along with education and families vice chairman, Theo Smith, and director of children’s services, Helen Budge, had met Mr Swinney in Edinburgh.
“I am absolutely against some of the proposals in here,” he said, adding the papers before members provided them with a “starter” for the response, which must be submitted by the end of January.
Lerwick North member, John Fraser, backed the chairman’s comments. But he wondered if the proposals meant staff numbers could be at risk – not to mention their health as well.
He wondered if some reference to that could be included in the response.
“Head teachers are educationalists. They’re not accountants – they’re teachers. And teachers need to be allowed to teach. – John Fraser
“Head teachers are educationalists. They’re not accountants – they’re teachers. And teachers need to be allowed to teach.
“I fear for Shetland staff recruitment, staff retention and God forbid, staff good health.”
He also wanted to press home the point that a good number of head teachers in Shetland had class teaching roles.
Questioned by Shetland Central member Davie Sandison, Mrs Budge admitted there were some head teachers who did not have teaching roles who saw benefits behind the proposals.
“I think for our estate here in Shetland the points that have already been made are more pertinent,” she said.
Lerwick South member, Peter Campbell, was worried about the potential impact on children.
“I’m very concerned about the way this proposed piece of legislation is moving,” he said.
“I think it would be detrimental to the education of the children, particularly in small schools where you’re putting more and more responsibility on head teachers and making it more and more difficult for us to recruit.”
He also cited potential problems if issues arose involving staff who held duties between various different schools.
“We could be having industrial tribunals for decades,” he warned.
Religious representative Martin Tregonning warned that, contrary to the report before members, there was a potential for “very big” implications for the council over human resources.
“It’s not only the impact on head teachers but also on the admin staff we’re going to have to employ.
“I think we should respond as robustly as possible,” he concluded. “I think you’d have to go some way before I’d think you’d worded it too strongly.”
Not all the proposals have been totally dismissed, however.
The response is “broadly supportive” of the proposals in respect of parental and community engagement – which is consistent with work already being carried out to involve parents and communities.
Mr Smith said there were parts of the changes that were quite liked.
However, religious representative, Tom McIntyre, wondered if it was right to say in the response that the proposals were “broadly welcomed”, especially given the widespread concerns which had been raised.