St Mary's wants its day in court

31st August 2001 at 01:00
Scotland's last opted-out school will fight on, reports David Henderson.

BACKERS of St Mary's Episcopal primary in Dunblane are going to the legal wire to prevent the country's last opted-out school being transferred to Stirling Council on January 7. They want similar treatment to Jordanhill in Glasgow, the only other state school funded directly by the Scottish Executive.

As the Education Minister signed the long-anticipated statutory order to remove self-governing status from the 72-pupil primary and 40-pupil nursery and hand it back to local authority control, the school's board of management rushed to the Court of Session to seek a judicial review.

Dornoch Academy, the country's other opted-out school, was hauled back into Highland Council two years ago without such legal and political wrangling and has been quietly developing into a six-year secondary.

But Alastair McCulloch, chairman of St Mary's board, which opted out of the former Central Region's control in 1995, said that reintegration would be "a retrograde step" and that at no time in the past two years had ministers explained how education at the school would be significantly improved by the move.

The board's legal argument was based on fairness, Mr McCulloch said. "It is unjust and discriminatory under the European Court of Human Rights for the Government to treat St Mary's one way and Jordanhill another way."

"We are a state-funded school and there is no real difference between ourselves and Jordanhill. Why is it Jordanhill is excluded from the debate? Ministers have never given us an answer."

Mr McCulloch said the school had been waiting for two years for the ministerial order and believed there were solid grounds for challenging the decision. "We believe that had common sense prevailed rather than ideology, this matter would have been resolved amicably," he said.

The board argues that self-governing status allows it to focus resources on front-line teaching, spending less on bureaucracy than comparable local authority schools. Last year, it was given pound;154,000 by the Scottish Executive to cover costs. "It's a very effective way of delivering education," Mr McCulloch said.

St Mary's claims substantially higher than average standards of academic performance although around one in three pupils have special educational needs and are on staged intervention. Mr McCulloch contends that the school deals better with such issues. It has appointed a fourth teacher that takes the pupil-teacher ratio to 1:18.

Stirling this week pointed out it had never managed the school and would have further talks with the board over its transfer. "The school is clearly popular and we would wish to build on that success," Gordon Jeyes, director of children's services, said.

Jack McConnell, Education Minister, hoped the school would "work positively with the council to ensure a smooth handover for the benefit of the children at the school".

But Brian Monteith, the Tories' education spokesman, commented: "Mr McConnell has demonstrated that the interest of the children at St Mary's primary comes a poor second to pandering to the prejudices of the Labour left and assisting with the empire building of local authority bureaucrats."

THE TORY LEGACY

St Mary's has been the most overtly political school in Scotland since Michael Forsyth, the former Scottish Secretary, actively promoted opting out in his Stirling constituency.

Several key board members remain active in the Conservative Party which continues to champion the school's semi-independence.

William Hague, the former Tory leader, visited the school last year.

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