SOME harder choices may have to be made if this week’s decision by the local education authority to seek a single headteacher for the region’s four Roman Catholic primary schools proves unsuccessful as a way of tackling recruitment problems, councillors were told this week.
Pupil rolls at the four schools had been falling because they were not performing well enough, due to not having the right permanent leadership in place.
Scottish Borders Council’s education executive had authorised an extensive review to be carried out, involving consultations with parents, staff, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the wider Catholic community.
Four consultation meetings were attended by staff and parents, but with only a small minority of responses in favour of the single headteacher option.
However, this week saw the new education committee endorse a recommendation to appoint a single ‘super’ headteacher, rather than the alternative option of sticking with the status quo of one headteacher for two pairs of partnered schools.
The committee also authorised the setting up of an implementation board to support, monitor and review the new arrangements over the first year of operation.
It was also agreed that a report reviewing the first year be brought back to the education committee in due course.
Committee chairman Councillor Sandy Aitchison (Galashiels & District, BP) said the review had proved a complex exercise given the legal constraints, the requirements of the Roman Catholic Church and the needs of pupils, staff and parents at the schools, which all had to be balanced in reaching a decision.
The four Roman Catholic primary schools in the Borders are St Joseph’s, Selkirk; Halyrude, Peebles; St Margaret’s, Hawick; and St Margaret’s, Galashiels, and when the new school year begins in August, the total projected pupil roll is estimated at being 155 children, with slight increases for three of the schools.
Welcoming the decision, Mr Aitchison said the successful applicant for the four-school headship would face a challenging, but not monumental, task.
“We must ensure there is permanence of management in these schools for the future,” he added.
And on the Roman Catholic Church’s view that the single headteacher plan be implemented on a pilot basis initially, Mr Aitchison made it clear this was not going to be the case: “This is not a pilot project, we are looking at permanence.”
Councillor Catriona Bhatia (Tweeddale West, LD) said the most important factor had to be the quality of education delivered to children.
And she added that the “elephant in the room” was whether there was still a need for such single faith schools in the 21st century.
“I think this model is good, but it will have to be delivering excellent education and if that can’t be delivered, I think we will have to bite the bullet when it comes to discussing this issue again,” she said.
“And the next time, any review would have to have a much wider remit and perhaps have to take some harder decisions.”
Mr Aitchsion conceded that question might have to be asked at a later date, but Catholic representative on the committee, Joe Walsh, disagreed.
He pointed out there was 400 years of history involved and the Roman Catholic Church wanted to preserve such schools.
“And a lot of non-Catholics want to now send their children to such schools,” he said. “It’s going to lead to trouble if you are looking to change that and that is not just an issue for this authority, but most authorities.
Mr Aitchison responded: “We are not in any way down that road at this point. We have to make this a success.”
But in a statement, the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland told TheSouthern yesterday that while it recognised the challenges faced by the council, the proposed strategy was “far from ideal” and will require close monitoring.
St Margaret’s Parent Council in Galashiels also says it will closely monitor the new arrangements when they are introduced after the Easter holidays.
Chairman Robert Fairburn told us: “Given the right personnel in the appointed posts and management support structure, I believe this innovative model can prove to be a success.
“It is important to build on the fantastic work which has been taking place at St Margaret’s over the past two years.
“The parent council will be watching closely to ensure that there is appropriate management cover at all times in the school to allow it to continue to flourish.”