Small-town battle with no winners

10th October 1997 at 01:00
Neil Munro reports from the troubled Western Isles on the conflict between a director and his flagship school

First, an interest. I am a former pupil of the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway. Despite adverse publicity following the bullying furore which has engulfed it, that is an admission I am still happy to make.

There are no winners in the current imbroglio. Neil Galbraith, the director of education who is to be "assisted in developing his management style", is condemned by the school staff as a hands-on interventionist. Donald Macdonald, the apparently laid-back rector who has to comply with the recommendations of an HMI report within six months or face disciplinary action, is condemned for being hands off.

Mr Galbraith, about whom I must declare a further interest as my former history teacher, was exhibiting his usual mixture of sang-froid and ironic amusement following last week's rebuke by the council's education committee. "In a way, you could argue that the director of education should have received a stronger rap over the knuckles for not being interventionist enough in the affairs of the Nicolson," he says. "But I am pleased that the council as a corporate body is now prepared to assist the education department and I look forward to this additional support."

There is no doubt that Mr Galbraith, Scotland's longest-serving director of education and chairman of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, excites strong views. Indeed, he appears to realise this himself, having drafted in an outside consultant to try to head off charges of undue bias - not entirely successfully in the view of the Nicolson staff. The Scottish Office was similarly anxious to avoid any accusations of a stitch-up, having sent in HMI- not entirely a successful mission either.

The Inspectorate's judgment is a curate's egg, which highlights the drawbacks of HMI "aspect" reports commissioned in a crisis. Its remit to examine the care and welfare of the Nicolson's 1,000 pupils was narrow. The result is that the famous HMI performance indicators on "how good is our school?" have effectively gone unanswered. Local parents are none the wiser. They are told by the inspectors and the council that the headteacher is "approachable (but) does not give a clear sense of direction".

The report does not, however, give a clear sense of how good the school actually is as a learning establishment. Figures from Graham Harcus, the former depute director in Strathclyde who acted as a consultant for the education department' inquiry, appeared to confirm that the Nicolson's renowned academic standing is on the slide. Higher results have gone from 10 per cent above the national average three years ago to the average. Mr Harcus says the reasons are hard to discern since the lack of analysis of exam performance is one of the many deficiencies he encountered.

It is one of the perplexing issues in this whole affair that the various parties involved do not appear to be talking about the same school. They do not even agree how many promoted posts are vacant or who had overall responsibility for the guidance service. Similarly, Mr Galbraith's explanation for the declining exam performance is that the Nicolson makes no effort to offer alternatives to the Higher at a time of increased staying-on rates. The school says 144 modules are available for senior pupils, though not all are taken.

The director's view, essentially, is that time has stood still for the Nicolson. Mr Macdonald's management, described as consensual by both HMI and his staff, is described by Mr Harcus as 10 years out of date. The rector is clearly not one for reams of written policy statements and "interventionist management". His response to the chief executive's inquiry, a brief one-page letter, appeared to capture his style perfectly.

Mr Galbraith, on the other hand, alleges that the era of accountability has yet to penetrate the school and says there is "a general hostility to being questioned". The bureaucrat in the director is also offended by the school's "widespread habit" of being late in making information returns to his department. The Nicolson, needless to say, insists that "instructions and directions issued by the education department are carried out to the letter".

One outsider involved in the investigations, asked to rank the Nicolson on the Inspectorate's scale of 1-4, told The TES Scotland he would give a 2 for the school overall (good) but a 4 for management (unsatisfactory). Such a low management rating has led to the departure of two heads recently.

Some of the criticisms levelled at the Nicolson are nothing new to afficionados of HMI reports: uneven departmental performance, variable quality or absence of written policies, more monitoring and evaluation required.

Other complaints such as rowdyism on school buses, the absence of school uniform, pupils smoking, inadequate canteen facilities, even the levels of bullying, are not unique to the Nicolson and certainly not unique to the current generation of pupils.

Staff point to extenuating circumstances they say were ignored by HMI. The most significant, given the focus of the report, was the absence through illness of two guidance teachers in the week of the inspectors' visit, when the school says it was already a guidance teacher short. In addition, two assistant heads were in the process of retiring.

Inspectors are also said to have failed to talk to key outside agencies such as community education, the police and social work. The staff, in short, are miffed.

In the meantime, the Nicolson's two vacated assistant head posts are being filled by quality assurance staff drafted from the education department, one of whom is supposed to apply council performance targets to the principal guidance teachers. Mr Galbraith says he has made clear that the seconded officers are "responsible directly to the rector and are there to help the school".

Inevitably, the move is another irritant to the Nicolson's teachers. In one sense this is a story about small-town Scotland. Mr Galbraith's wife teaches in Stornoway's Lews Castle School and his daughter is on the staff of a local primary. Andrew Mackenzie, who chairs the Nicolson's school board, works in the chief executive's department while his wife is a teacher at the Nicolson.

A former chairman of the board is now the Western Isles's director of social work. Mr Galbraith himself used to be the Educational Institute of Scotland rep in his time at the Nicolson.

But other small councils have not experienced such woeful personal relationships and disastrous breakdowns in basic communications. And, Mr Galbraith says, he does not face similar problems of persuading other schools to implement council policies. Inevitably, some of his critics claim, this is because they are cowed by an "intimidating" management style.

One local headteacher, who did not want to be named, pays Mr Galbraith the handsome tribute of "an intellectual giant among pygmies". But he adds: "There will never be peace in the education system here until the main personalities leave the stage."

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