Councillors vote against move to bring in consultants to create education plan for Moray
Moray Council has voted against bringing in consultants to draw up an urgent improvement plan for its education service.
That has led to fears of an increased risk of inspection by Education Scotland, which is already undertaking enhanced monitoring.
The issue provoked tense debate in the area's decision-making chamber on Wednesday.
There, it emerged the education watchdog called for action last month during talks with chief executive Roddy Burns.
A report before councillors recommended the appointment of Bruce Robertson Education Limited on a consultancy basis to draw up the comprehensive plan.
But after nearly an hour of talks, councillors voted by 11 votes to 10, with two abstentions, against the move.
The council's SNP administration has stated that education is its top priority, and members described the outcome as a “bad decision for Moray”. They accused some of the opposition councillors of “hanging education out to dry”.
But opponents voiced deep unease over the proposal and questioned the need to bring in consultants to create “yet another” plan.
Mr Burns said the high level document would be far broader and deeper than existing work.
He added that talks with Education Scotland on February 14 resulted in the need for “swift and decisive” action.
“This was to control the risk of a full inspection, something which had been contemplated by Education Scotland since 2018, but the risk of which has increased in recent months. To do that, a plan needed to be provided to Education Scotland by the end of February.
“This led to the urgent identification of someone with the relevant skills and background to undertake the improvement work with immediate effect.”
Cllr Derek Ross, who led the amendment against the proposal, said the procurement procedure should have been followed.
“I don't think you can throw out policies willy-nilly in this way," he said.
He pointed out the Northern Alliance – a collaboration of local authorities – had already developed a regional improvement framework plan, which had recently been approved. And he said other options should be explored, such as the ability of Teaching Scotland to help or the creation of a quality improvement manager post.
Cllr George Alexader called for reassurance any new plan would state “warts and all, what needs to be done”.
He added: “We already have a report from Caledonian Economics sitting on a shelf somewhere that cost us about £60,000. That was thrown out because councillors made the decision that they didn't want to accept much of what was in it.”
Mr Burns said the issue was his top priority, adding that the authority had a “window of opportunity” to show its full commitment to the issue.
And Council leader Graham Leadbitter said elected members demonstrated what could be done thanks to hard work across political groupings during the budget. He said: “It is now time to refocus and the principle issue which needs to be addressed, the principle area of work that we need to get on with, is education.”
After the meeting, Cllr Sonya Warren, who chairs the children and young people's services committee, said: “I think in my time as a councillor this is one of the worst decisions taken by the council. Education improvement and modernisation is the top priority of this Administration and the decision today risks putting that agenda back by several months.”
A spokeswoman for Education Scotland said: “We have been undertaking enhanced monitoring of Moray Council during the academic year 2018/19 in response to concerns specified within the Moray Council Local Scrutiny Plan 2018/19 published by Audit Scotland in April 2018.
“As this monitoring is ongoing it would not be appropriate for Education Scotland to comment further at this stage in the process.”
The scrutiny plan raised “significant concerns” regarding strategic leadership and governance in education and children’s services. “Outcomes for children and young people are below the national average and the virtual comparator and in some measures are showing a decline,” it stated.