Donald Macdonald was accused of complacency after denying there was a bullying problem at the 1,000-pupil school. If he does not measure up over the next six months, the education committee agreed that he should face disciplinary action. Mr Macdonald has already had a written warning from the director of education, against which he unsuccessfully appealed last Friday, over unauthorised contacts with the media.
The committee administered an embarrassing but mild rebuke to Neil Galbraith, the director of education, who is to be "assisted in developing his management style . . . in accordance with guidance to be issued by the chief executive". This follows the Inspectorate's condemnation of the climate of "distrust and suspicion" between director, school and school board.
Bob Christie, Scottish secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers who attended the education committee's almost three-hour discussion, said the decision was outrageous. "If they were being even-handed, they should have grasped the nettle and put the director on probation as well," Mr Christie said. "The school has been given no opportunity to answer any of the criticisms."
But Angus Graham, the council's vice-convener, said: "We will no longer tolerate second-rate management at the Nicolson Institute."
The committee agreed to take another unprecedented step, recommended by HMI, to set up a working party to improve strained relationships between school and council. It will include the director but is to be chaired by Brian Stewart, the chief executive. A member of HMI is to be invited to join.
While councillors were eager to draw a line under past battles, it was clear that the working party will have a stiff challenge. Mr Galbraith confirmed the dim view often taken by his department of its flagship school when he told councillors that he had been misled by the school into thinking that the guidance system, one focus of HMI criticisms, was working well. Principal guidance teachers are also to be subject to performance targets.
Mr Stewart said submissions to his own inquiry confirmed that "relationships generally are in need of significant improvement all round". Referring caustically to Mr Macdonald's "brief one-page letter with no corroboration or other evidence", Mr Stewart said the head was complimentary about the school board and "broadly neutral" about the education department.
A particular running sore was the allocation of pupils from third year on between the Nicolson and Stornoway's unique vocational Lews Castle School, where Mr Galbraith's wife is assistant head. Mr Stewart suggested that clearing this up would demonstrate the commitment of the various parties to joint working and might "go a long way to raising morale".
Yet another report by an outside consultant pinpointed overly informal leadership by school management as a key fault. Graham Harcus, a former depute director of education in Strathclyde, said no one knew why the pass rate for pupils with three or more Highers had fallen from 10 per cent above the Scottish figure in 1994 to the national average this year.