Alistair Farquhar

The recently retired head of educational resources in Moray and Cosla adviser shares his views on pensions, supply pay, teacher numbers and the controversial issue of rural school closures. Interview by Henry Hepburn.

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Having advised Cosla during last year's teachers' agreement negotiations, how do you see things now?

The time was right to review McCrone, but that got clouded by demands on councils to find budget cuts and increasing involvement of chief execs and corporate beings in what previously had been an education services function. All sorts of stuff got involved in what should have been a pretty good professional exchange building on the collegiality that Cosla, trade unions and Scottish government had built up. Throw into that mix pay freezes, pension issues, worries about Curriculum for Excellence - the need to review McCrone became adversarial.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect was reduced pay for short-term supply. Do you stand by that?

There was a lot of emotive commentary that was ill-informed. In principle, I still think it is the right thing to do - that you don't require the full range of duties from supply teachers in a very short period of time, therefore they shouldn't get paid the full rate. I would argue the alternatives were worse, from a teacher's perspective, because it would have meant reducing the number of permanent teachers.

What could offset reinstatement of the former supply rates?

If it's from the education budget then that's either going to be staffing, whether teachers or support staff, or it's going to be in resource budgets. The fat - the suits in the office - has been trimmed to pretty skeletal levels in most cases.

Should Cosla have got more out of last year's deal?

There would always have been a desire to get bigger savings, but we do need to temper that with what's in the best interests of young people. I still think there is room for manoeuvre within the 35-hour week, but the industrial relations climate is not conducive to that at the moment.

How has a national minimum number of teachers affected education directors' planning?

It's constrained us, absolutely. In Moray, if we have fewer children we need fewer teachers. We might want to keep the same number and reduce class sizes, do all sorts of things, but we're in a time of restriction and reduction. The jury is out on smaller class sizes being a good thing in itself.

Keith Grammar in Moray pioneered early presentation for exams. What happened to that experiment and what was learned?

It had some successes - in developing the curriculum at S1-3 and having a better, more coherent flow through coursework - but the experiment is no longer. It was well intentioned but seemed to involve a significant workload. We don't have any substantive evidence that it made a major difference to attainment levels, although I suspect some work helped in terms of Curriculum for Excellence development.

Is there a case for fewer local authorities?

Yes. There are advantages in a very small authority like Moray - you can get all your headteachers in a room, you know the people, you know the schools - but I would argue that was equally well done as a division of a larger region like Grampian. When you're looking to cut budgets, you get to the stage of thinking, "Are we big enough to do the job?" And 32 local negotiating committees for teachers - God help us. If we can run police and fire services as one service with local delivery elements, that's a model worth exploring.

Is the sharing of services worth exploring?

It's a no-brainer. Why the hell do we have 32 payroll systems for councils?

With the RAF the biggest local employer, how have Ministry of Defence cuts affected Moray?

The potential upside is that Moray got its act together in looking at how we diversify the economy. There's been some government investment in life sciences that Moray College UHI is building on.

A number of Moray's smaller schools have closed. Why?

It is a combination of educational and financial arguments. I think we still have some way to go. We have 45 primary schools. We could definitely cater well for primary education in Moray with at least six, and possibly 10, fewer primaries.

Education directors' body ADES has argued that small schools are not suitable for Curriculum for Excellence. Do you agree?

Yes. There are distinct disadvantages with fewer than 50 children. Social interaction and educational opportunities are limited. I have been told you get more individual attention in a small school, and kids don't suffer bullying. For me, that was akin to an insult to larger schools. And we always get this nonsense that you shouldn't be able to close a school on financial grounds. Why on God's earth not?

Do you accept, as the Scottish Rural Schools Network appears to have shown, that any savings from closing rural schools are minimal?

There have been some proposals where councils haven't got their sums correct, but we've proved with Cabrach (Primary), which we closed last year, that there are financial savings in some cases.

What has been the highlight of your career?

I look back fondly on 15 years as a headteacher. There's a sense of belonging and of having achieved something at the end of each school year.

Personal profile

Born: Aberdeen, 1952

Education: St Gerardine Primary, Lossiemouth; Lossiemouth High; Elgin Academy; University of Aberdeen, BA in education and sociology

Career: Teacher, St Gerardine Primary; depute head, New Elgin Primary; headteacher, Kinloss Primary; headteacher, St Gerardine Primary (where his father was the janitor and his mother the cleaner); education officer at Moray Council from 1998; head of service from 2000.

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