As storm clouds gather, don't keep us in the dark

16th January 2015 at 00:00

"In the culture I grew up in, you did your work and you did not put your arm around it to stop other people from looking - you took the earliest possible opportunity to make knowledge available."

We've cited this 1995 quotation from Scottish pharmacologist James Black before, but make no apologies for using it again as it is particularly apt this week.

Black, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, was talking about scientific research. But his comment also encapsulates the spirit of collaboration - with parents and communities - for which Scottish education has so often been praised in recent times.

In times of trouble, however, people in power have a habit of becoming less communicative. Crisis management is hard enough, it seems, without giving truculent members of the public ammunition to bombard you with.

Last year Scottish education bosses warned that the most obvious savings had been made. The time was coming for unpalatable cuts and dramatic changes to how education was run.

That being so, it is now more crucial than ever for the public to be well informed. Unsurprisingly, however, people don't feel very clued-up just now.

Local authorities got it in the neck from the Scottish Parliament's education committee this week (see pages 6-7). Politicians had been surprised to hear from education directors' body ADES that most budget deliberations were now taking place in private.

Only two of 32 councils had responded to the committee's call for information on how spending on schools was looking for the coming years. Members were more than a little peeved, and recalled accusations of "secrecy" that parents' groups had levelled at councils.

They shouldn't take it personally - we at TESS have become inured to such frustrations over the years.

In 2013, one council leader predicted that a difficult round of local budgets would usher in "the biggest storm facing public services in history". It took us weeks to establish what this meant for education in practice; only one council was upfront enough to publish budget cuts on its homepage.

Responses vary dramatically when we speak to council press offices. Most are the epitome of professionalism, sharing relevant information at the same time as fulfilling a duty to portray their employer in a favourable light.

Others are less so. One council in particular seems to have advised staff to stick their fingers in their ears and put the catchphrase of the indolent South Park policeman Officer Barbrady on repeat: "OK people, move along, there's nothing to see here."

Self-preservation is perfectly understandable in uncertain times. But local authorities are not their own masters - they serve the public that pays for them.

Everyone knows that councils will have to make difficult decisions in the years ahead. And everyone has a right to know why they make the choices they do.

henry.hepburn@tesglobal.com

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