Despite the pre-election rhetoric, the Scottish Executive's new brooms continue to face the Tory legacy on opting out
THE CHAIRMAN of the board of management at St Mary's Episcopal primary in Dunblane has challenged Stirling Council and the Government to demonstrate how an end to the school's opt-out status would bring any benefits.
Alastair McCulloch, a Dunblane dental surgeon, said parents were deeply unhappy and he confirmed that some were considering what legal grounds might be available to challenge the Scottish Executive's move, contained in last week's draft Education Bill.
Mr McCulloch said the board had no intention of spending scarce resources on any legal challenge, preferring to argue its case as part of the consultation on the legislation and thereafter during the Bill's passage.
"We have not only survived but thrived," Mr McCulloch said. "So why do we need a directorate of education?" St Mary's now has 66 primary pupils and 27 in the nursery, a steady rise from its roll of 46 five years ago.
But Margaret Doran, Stirling's head of services to schools, said she hoped for a smooth transition. "We would welcome St Mary's back into our network of schools, which we believe would be to the benefit of the teachers, pupils and parents," she said.
Mr McCulloch none the less points to the school's success as an argument for leaving well alone. He said all 11 primary 7 pupils left this year having achieved level E in reading and maths, while some attained level E in writing. He also highlighted running costs of pound;1,790 per pupil against Stirling's pound;2,007 and pound;1,849 nationally.
The latest published Scottish Office figures actually show St Mary's costing pound;2,874 per pupil - pound;1,000 more than Newton primary, also in Dunblane. But the board argues that was based on the much lower pupil roll in September 1997. St Mary's receives up to pound;17,000 a year in capital grants from the Scottish Office which also spent pound;500,000 on refurbishing the school.
Mr McCulloch commented: "The question that has to be asked is whether we will significantly improve under Stirling. We can't get fuller because we are full. We can't get cheaper because we are among the cheapest. And our standards speak for themselves, without any attempt to deny places to pupils with special needs."
The chairman admits that St Mary's does not have a good relationship with Stirling. Although the school is largely responsible for its own affairs, it has to buy school transport and special needs back-up from the authority.
"Any time we have to deal with the council we have problems, particularly over special needs," he says. "The decision-making is extremely tortuous."
Ms Doran insists, however, that St Mary's will benefit from the council's wider support and from sharing good practice with other schools. "St Mary's loses out on opportunities which come from being part of that network, particularly in relation to staff development in effective learning and teaching and in special educational needs," she said.
Mr McCulloch said his personal view is that schools like St Mary's are a reproach to education authorities. "If we are successful, it raises questions about the role of local councils in running education," he suggests. "That is why the Government doesn't want schools like ours to continue."
The Scottish Executive's consultation document, however, makes it clear that it is simply following parental preference. It states: "The policy of opting out has never been popular in Scotland and the recent consultation on school boards found that, although parents wanted to be consulted on key issues, they wanted the professionals to make the decisions.
"Parents in Scotland do not wish to manage schools."