Holyrood must cast a reforming eye over the entitlement to sit on education committees, says Jim Towers
Education committees in Scotland must be unique in local authorities insofar as they have non-elected members who take part in the debates, often with full voting powers. In Aberdeenshire, apart from the two teacher representatives (who both happen to be members of the same teaching union), there are three church members (representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Scotland and "other denominations" respectively).
Today, however, we live in a mainly secular society, and one could argue that the presence of three church representatives is superfluous. No other council committees contain outside representatives - either from other groups in the community or from among their own employees. Social workers do not sit on social work and housing committees; roadmen do not sit on transport and roads committees. It follows, therefore, that education committees should not have outside representation either.
The two questions that exercise the minds of many councillors are whether these outside representatives should sit on these committees at all and, if so, whether they should have the right to vote.
As far as the first question is concerned, it can be fairly stated that the contributions made by these extra members are of considerable value. The tone and quality of the debate can be, and often is, greatly enhanced. For many councillors, however, the problem arises when votes by "outsiders" can influence decisions that should be the sole preserve of elected members, as is the case on all other council committees.
This is particularly so in situations where education is combined with another area such as recreation. If education and recreation are to be considered as equal partners of the same committee, as they are in Aberdeenshire, why is not the recreation side of it represented at committee level as well - by librarians or landscape gardeners?
It is even more difficult to justify the statutory right of church representatives, not just to debate such concerns, but actually to vote on them. Teacher representatives are there by courtesy of the local council.
Until quite recently, in fact, they had voting rights on the Aberdeenshire education and recreation committee. But these were removed by a decision at full council after they voted on what appeared to be a politically sensitive issue - councillor involvement in the appointment of senior management in schools.
The three church representatives are in a rather different position as they are appointed by statute and have statutory voting rights as well. To many people their position is considered anachronistic, a throwback to the days when many of the schools were run by the church. It could at best be argued that, while their views might be particularly relevant and appropriate on religious and moral matters, it is the very negation of democracy to allow them votes on all educational and recreational issues.
It is totally unacceptable that a church representative of the committee should have the power to vote on issues that are of no more concern to them than they are to Joe Public. At present, however, it is difficult to see how anything can be done to prevent this, short of a change in the legislation, and MSPs might do well to consider addressing this.
It would be possible, of course, to take a much broader look at the composition of education committees. Perhaps there is a case for inviting representatives of other bodies to participate. Could there be an argument for expanding the present composition of the committee to include school board representation, a member of a parent group and a pupil representative, as well as trade union and church membership?
The old Inner London Education Authority which disappeared under Margaret Thatcher was independent of any council, though most of the members themselves were elected, specifically, on the grounds of their educational knowledge and expertise. Clearly, in such a scenario the goalposts would change and all members would be entitled to vote. Possibly the very suggestion is too radical, though it could be one way of ensuring that control of education remained in local hands.
Unfortunately, the signs would seem to indicate otherwise. Recent moves in the Scottish Parliament show a clear trend towards more centralisation.
Sadly, in the not too distant future, it may well be the case that Edinburgh rules OK - certainly as far as education is concerned.
Jim Towers is SNP spokesperson on education on Aberdeenshire Council.