Schools' futures at a crossroads

4th February 2011 at 00:00

Could a new Crossroads Primary, in East Ayrshire, be reborn as a community-based school? That's what parents are proposing and Education Secretary Mike Russell is saying he supports the idea in principle.

If the parents of the school's former pupils are successful, will it become a model for community-based schools across Scotland? Will a party seize the opportunity to propose new funding models - and possibly new legislation - that could make this an issue in the forthcoming Holyrood elections?

I read with interest the story of Crossroads Primary when The TESS covered it earlier this year. It reminded me of how St Mary's Primary, in Dunblane, was forced to become just another cog in the Stirling Council machine, instead of being run by parents.

St Mary's educational results were outstanding, but that did not protect it from the ambitions of heavily politicised bureaucrats who could not stomach local competition showing them up.

St Mary's was clearly well run, popular in the community and had to turn children away. But that did not protect it from local councillors who saw the school's independence as an affront to their collectivist dignity.

St Mary's was the only school of its type, to be saved by its parents from closure and then turned into a beacon of educational excellence. Its existence and success challenged the prevailing model that councillors and council officers know best.

But St Mary's never really stood a chance against the battalions ranged against them. Meanwhile, Scotland's other successful educational anachronism, Jordanhill School in Glasgow, was feted by the west coast establishment's socialist politicians who wouldn't know hypocrisy if it slapped them in the face.

The parents of St Mary's pupils were not alone of course. There followed a stream of small schools, often very popular in their community, with good academic results and favourable inspections, closed by councils who preferred to count rows of beans rather than ask how they grow.

With Holyrood having removed the facility for parents to establish their own schools by opting out of council control, the parents had nowhere to turn and nearly all of these schools were picked off one by one - unless political necessity required a change of heart.

The SNP Government's Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act was designed to give threatened rural schools protection, but the example of Crossroads Primary shows this protection to be superficial. The act has only created an extra hurdle that councils quickly learn to vault. Ministerial sympathy is exposed as nothing but reptilian eyewash that a box of Kleenex can't deal with.

International examples of parents establishling community-based schools within the state system are not difficult to find. I visited one in Sweden in 2004 and found that, not only was it successful, it had also encouraged the established local school to raise its game.

Since then, Scottish politicians such as Mike Russell and Tavish Scott have visited similar schools in Sweden and other countries and we have seen the preference for local authority management crumble - even union leaders have suggested they are open to ideas.

I doubt their sincerity: educational change is unbelievably slow in Scotland, with vested interests willing to die in a ditch to protect a system that fails pupils, parents and teachers.

Parents at Crossroads Primary say they have identified prefabricated classrooms and a grant of pound;2,500 per head, worth pound;137,000 for the school's 52 pupils. I think this will take more than money and goodwill.

Without legislation to give parents the right to establish a school if they can get the minimum number of pupils, the resistance will continue and so will the alienation of parents. Any takers for a line in a manifesto?

Brian Monteith thinks parents should have the right to establish community-based schools.

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