Council hears of under-performance as review of Catholic schools is launched

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A MAJOR review of the four Roman Catholic primary schools in the region has been ordered by Scottish Borders Council.

And while the probe into the institutions will be wide-ranging and extensive, it will not involve consideration of closure or a change in denominational status.

That commitment was given by Joe Walsh who represents the Catholic Church on SBC’s education executive and who, on Monday, was appointed to a working group charged to complete its work by June of next year.

“The schools have not had their problems to seek and I see the purpose of this review as finding ways to strengthen them and the learning experience they offer pupils,” said Mr Walsh. “Closure is certainly not on the agenda.”

A report recommending the review, presented to Tuesday’s meeting of SBC’s education executive, gave a less-than-rosy assessment of the problems, in a region without a denominational secondary school, being encountered at St Joseph’s in Selkirk, its partner school at St Margaret’s in Hawick, at Halyrude in Peebles and at St Margaret’s in Galashiels.

“In common with other local authorities, it has become increasingly difficult to recruit to Roman Catholic headships,” reported head of schools Yvonne McCracken.

“This has led to a series of acting and multi-school headships and to the appointment of a non-Catholic manager of learning at one post.

“Currently there are no permanent head teachers in any of the four RC schools.”

Staffing appointments in RC schools, including headships, must be approved by the church, in the Borders’ case the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh and this, allied to lower headship salaries commensurate with school rolls, is seen as an inhibiting factor to recruitment.

St Margaret’s in Galashiels has had five acting, joint or interim heads in the past seven years.

All four RC primaries are considered “small schools” with St Joseph’s currently having a roll of 25 (capacity 50), St Margaret’s in Hawick 22 (100), Halyrude 84 (120) and St Margaret’s in Galashiels 60 (125).

Both Halyrude and St Margaret’s in Galashiels currently have interim head teachers – Kate Brown and Barbara Adams respectively, while Catriona Finn is the acting head at Joseph’s and St Margaret’s in Hawick.

“Over a number of years the rolls across all four schools have been reducing ... and the results of recent internal school reviews and external HMIE inspections have shown the four schools have variable performance with specific areas for improvement identified,” said Mrs McCracken.

SBS says it cannot disclose the number of non-Catholic children attending the four schools for data protection reasons, but TheSouthern believes that only about 10 per cent of St Joseph’s pupils and less than 50 per cent at Halyrude are Catholic.

At the other two schools, the ratio of Catholic to non-Catholic pupils is understood to be about 60:40.

Thus, the majority of Catholic children in the Borders are educated at non-denominational primaries.

The review group will be chaired by Councillor George Turnbull, executive member for education, and comprise fellow councillors Catriona Bhatia, Carolyn Riddell-Carre and Ron Smith.

Mr Walsh will represent the church, while Mrs Finn and two education officers, who are yet to be named, will also take part.

In addition, one parent council representative from each of the four schools will take their places on the group.

Education director Glenn Rodger welcomed the review. “These schools are clearly not working as they should be and ensuring they do in future so that Roman Catholic children are not disadvantaged must be the number one priority,” he told TheSouthern.