School boards give errant leadership a final warning

26th May 2000 at 01:00
THE new executive of the Scottish School Board Association has been given six months by east of Scotland members to put its house in order or face mass resignations.

Insiders now fear for the future of the Dumfries-based organisation, damaged by infighting and its high-profile role in the Keep the Clause Campaign, a decision that continues to split boards across the country.

The new leadership, sworn in at last Saturday's annual meeting in Glasgow, is dominated by key campaigners behind the association's involvement with the bid to block repeal of Section 2A. Alan Smith, chair of St Andrew's Academy board in Paisley, has taken over as president, with ally Ian Findlay, an Aberdeenshire primary board member, as vice-president and John Waddell, East Renfrewshire, as secretary.

Mr Waddell sits on the Scottish Executive committee on sex education guidelines. The new treasurer is Jeff Taylor of Cumnock Academy, victor of an East Ayrshire election over the ousted president, David Hutchison.

Mr Smith, immediate past treasurer, promised a "return to core activity" after taking heavy flak over the Section 2A wrangle and the financial mess caused by the ill-fated venture into renovating old computers for schools through the Furbie Foundation.

"We must remain focused," he said. "And I would apologise for any offence caused by a stance taken which may have disagreed with that of your board. I think mistakes were made with Section 2A we would not be looking to repeat."

However, a succession of board chairs warned the executive it was on trial and underlined their concern by vetoing immediate constitutional changes. Nadine Harrison of Tynecastle High, Edinburgh, an outspoken critic of the Section 2A stance, told Mr Smith: "There are quite a lot of school boards in the east of Scotland watching what happens over the next six months before they decide to renew their membership."

The former executive was condemned for failing to ask appropriate questions after it canvassed members' views over Section 2A. The result was confused and open to different interpretation. Dr Harrison commented: "Een Brian Souter knows how to design a questionnaire."

Mr Smith insisted the independent inquiry into the Furbie Foundation's demise and the increased salary to Ann Hill, the chief executive, had found "no financial impropriety". The situation would not arise again. But he admitted:

"We failed to put in proper practices and procedures and the action plan starts from now. The SSBA will become the professional organisation to represent school boards in Scotland at a level that can meet with ministers and not have any of the errors of the past."

The new executive would look at many of the issues highlighted by the inquiry and would be seeking advice from an employment consultant on grievance and disciplinary procedures and continuing professional development.

Robert Hogg, chair of Ratho primary, Edinburgh, commented: "What we're not talking about is impropriety but a slip up?"

"Absolutely," Mr Smith said.

Mr Hogg, however, remained critical. "The last time I heard of people being paid for not working was in East Germany. Essentially, people were hoping to continue taking money and not doing any work. That's not necessarily her (Ann Hill's) fault but there must be criticism of the SSBA for allowing that to happen."

A financial statement up to the end of December shows a loss of pound;27,000, with pound;24,000 of "bad debts" arising from the Furbie failure. Mr Smith said the company was doomed once the Scottish Executive agreed to fund new computers in schools.

Figures for the first few months of this year were not available, covering the controversial payments. But Mr Smith declared that the association was far from insolvent with around pound;67,500 in two bank accounts.

The Scottish Executive will not reclaim a grant of pound;17,500 that was intended to help tie up the loose ends of the Furbie collapse. Ministers were furious Government money was paid out in increased salaries for work that had apparently ended.

But a pound;20,000 grant to subsidise the SSBA newsletter has been axed. The grant is described as sales in the accounts. Now only member boards will receive a copy.

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