Western Isles Council given a warning not to proceed with school headteacher changes

A former Chief Executive of the General Teaching Council of Scotland has warned Comhairle nan Eilean Siar it’s moving in the wrong direction.

By Peter Urpeth.
Wednesday, 28th October 2020, 1:26 pm
Nicolson Institute, Stornoway.
Nicolson Institute, Stornoway.

The council plans to establish an executive head teacher role to manage the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway along with Sir E Scott School and the Leverhulme Memorial Primary School in Harris.

Professor Matthew (Mata) MacIver CBE, who was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis and is an Honorary Professor of UHI with his services to education being honoured with a CBE, told Malcolm Burr, Chief Executive of the Comhairle that such a move ‘will diminish the status of the individual school’ and will ‘hit directly at the important role that any school plays in its community’.

In his letter, Prof. MacIver said: “During my career I was privileged to be the head teacher of two very distinguished Scottish schools, Fortrose Academy and The Royal High School. It is because of my experience that I have become increasingly concerned about the proposal. The Executive Headship proposal may have economic benefits but it will certainly not bring any educational benefits”, adding “I would be extremely sorry to see CNES go down the road of using a business model to deliver education.”

Sign up to our daily Stornoway Gazette Today newsletter

Prof MacIver said: “Schools have an identity of their own which they guard jealously.”

He continued: “…Leading the development of any school is the head teacher. They listen, make judgements, and are ultimately accountable to elected representatives. They are not accountable to another head teacher.

“Pupils and staff relate to that managerial system. They may not always agree with decisions but, in my experience, they are hugely loyal to the school and its ethos. They see the head teacher as the person who is in daily charge, bringing unity, applauding its triumphs, giving a lead in sombre times and balancing all that with implementing council policy.  That is why the appointment of an executive head also diminishes the status of all pupils and staff.  Their school is not important enough to have its own Head teacher.”

Prof MacIver stated: “The proposed head of school will certainly not fill that role and will not be seen as the person effectively running the school.”

It is the relationship with the school community in Harris that worries him more than anything else. 

He continued: “The move to an executive head teacher will break down the trust that I am sure you would like to build within the Comhairle. I am only as good as the media reports that I read but sound judgement needs to be exercised to enable a fruitful and positive relationship to continue between the community and the Comhairle.

“I hope you recognise that I am a bystander with no vested interest whatsoever; except for one. I want the education system in the Western Isles to be among the best, if not the best, in the country. I suspect that your proposal for executive heads may need to be reviewed if that aim is to realised.”

A spokesperson for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar said that the Chief Executive Mr Burr would respond to Mr MacIver’s letter ‘in due course’.

Last week, Comhairle councillor, Calum MacLean (Loch a’Tuath ward), sent a letter to all fellow councillors calling for the roll-out of executive head teacher posts in Western Isles schools to be halted, and claimed that the move ‘does not have the support of teaching staff or community’.

He said: “Councillors who approved recommending the role out of executive head teachers did so without knowledge of the actual facts underlying what they were approving.”

In his letter, Cllr MacLean also referred to a report produced for the Comhairle by education consultant, Bruce Robertson OBE, and claimed that the Robertson report, ‘states categorically’ that the executive head teacher role ‘should only be for the primary sector’.

In the case of the Comhairle it is being introduced into both secondary and primary, and nowhere does the report suggest the withdrawal of the headteacher role or mention the creation of Head of School – a new role, being created alongside the introduction of the executive headteacher.

The councillor concluded in his letter: “There is the matter of community involvement. It is apparent from correspondence that the communities most affected by the introduction of executive headteachers are not comfortable with this change.

“We are in the process of engaging with communities and within these talks ‘Community Empowerment’ and ‘Decentralisation’ are common terms being used. The replacement of local headteachers with executive headteachers, based outside these communities does not at all give the impression that we are practising what we are preaching.”

The council was asked for comment on Cllr MacLean’s letter, none had been received at the time of going to press.