Skip to main content

Bust Borders bodged it up

Neil Munro reports on a hard-hitting inquest by MSPs

WITH the latest report on the pound;3.9 million education overspend by Scottish Borders, the authority has perhaps become the most scrutinised body after the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

The latest hard-hitting report from the Scottish Parliament's education committee, which speaks of "corporate failure", now sits alongside investigations by the council itself and the Auditor-General - and there is yet the forthcoming visit by HMI.

Karen Gillon, convener of the committee, said the all-party report was unanimous. MSPs agreed there was "a lack of robust internal structures", and this played its part in a failure to uncover the two-year overspend in the education budget until it was too late and then to deal with the aftermath adequately.

Ian Jenkins, a Liberal Democrat member of the committee and a Borders MSP, stressed that responsibility went wider than John Taylor, the then assistant director of education in charge of the budget. "This was a corporate, systemic failure of financial monitoring," Mr Jenkins said.

MSPs do not point the finger directly at John Christie, director of lifelong learning, who has been suspended. The report none the less concurs with the findings of the Auditor-General that Mr Christie "did not ensure that the financial performance of the education service was properly monitored".

The committee was, however, critical of the attitudes of Drew Tulley, council leader, and David Suckling, former education chairman - described last year by Mike Russell, the SNP's education spokesperson, as behaving like "a bystander at an accident".

Mr Russell and Ms Gillon both criticised Mr Tulley for the complacency of the council's evidence. "They just sat there and told us it was our fault for not giving them enough money," Ms Gillon said.

But the committee stops short of recommending that heads should roll, despite what it admits is a breakdown in trust between council and electorate. "That is a matter for Scottish Borders Council," Ms Gillon said.

But she added pointedly that when councils such as North Lanarkshire and East Ayrshire had faced budgetary crises they had taken action to reduce overspending and "the leaders went".

Jackie Baillie, the committee's Labour vice-convener, criticised the absence of communication at Scottish Borders - between officials and councillors, among councillors and among officials.

"There was a lack of clarity about remits, a lack of structures and a lack of awareness by councillors and officials of their responsibilities," Ms Baillie said.

Ms Gillon recalled that when Mr Suckling had been asked during his appearance before the committee what his role was he replied it was to represent the education department. "It wasn't," she declared. "It was to hold the department to account."

She said: "The fact that the quality of education survived was because of the quality of the staff."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you