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Watchdog warns on Western Isles

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (the Western Isles Council) is possibly facing the greatest challenges of any education authority in the country, Audit Scotland says.

The public spending watchdog, in a report released yesterday (Thursday), uses the word "concern" on a striking number of occasions in its assessment of the council's effectiveness in providing education and other services.

"We are concerned that the comhairle is currently unable to demonstrate a commitment to continuous improvement built into its processes," Isabelle Low, deputy chair of the Accounts Commission, said. "Without this, the comhairle will find it increasingly difficult to deliver effectively for the people of the Western Isles."

Malcolm Burr, the new chief executive, is now said to be conducting a "root and branch" review of how the council operates and the commission expects this to result in an improvement plan which will have to be "specific as to resources, responsibilities and time-scales".

Audit Scotland, which carried out the investigation for the commission, acknowledges that "the Western Isles is an area facing many challenges, in particular a declining population and fragile economy that is very dependent on the public sector".

A 31 per cent fall in the 0-15 age group and a 21 per cent decrease in the working population is projected by 2024 - "more marked" changes than the national average, Audit Scotland says.

One of the area's strengths, however, is the attainment of pupils which is generally well above the national average, although performance in S1 and at Advanced Higher is not so good.

The audit report, however, indicates that other aspects provide a less flattering picture, and reflect some of the concerns about the council's effectiveness. With no political administration driving policy, decisions tend to be taken issue by issue, the report notes.

One consequence is the council's failure to tackle falling school rolls.

Comhairle nan Eilean has the highest proportion of under-occupied schools compared with similar rural authorities: 77 per cent of primary schools use less than 40 per cent of their capacity.

The report states: "Dealing with under-occupancy in the primary school sector has not been an easy process and it is evident that tensions still exist, eight years on from the rejection of proposals that aimed to address this issue."

This was a proposal to establish area schools rather than one in every village. Although councillors were involved in drawing up the plan, it was rejected by the education committee in favour of a move to ensure schools could not be closed without the consent of the local community.

The council is now drawing up a scheme of area schools which will see a rebuilding programme under the public private partnership arrangements.

But, Audit Scotland points out, this will depend on reversing its opposition to area schools.

The report says similar tensions were evident in the review of the council's schools which provide education through from P1 to S2. It is one of only two authorities that have such "5-14 schools", but an independent study found inequalities in terms of the curriculum and resources for S1-S2.

Progress in tackling the problem has none the less been slow, the report states. The education committee discussed the matter in December 2004 and decided to hold a seminar which recommended a working group of councillors and officials be set up. That did not take place until June the following year. The group is now consulting heads and school boards but there is no time-scale for the completion of their work.

Despite the strictures, the education department comes in for praise following the HMIE follow-up report which found that the quality of strategic leadership and management had greatly improved. The initial inspection said senior management spent too much time on day-to-day operational matters.

In its response, the council said it is already tackling many of the issues raise. It said the main requirement was to tackle internal management mechanisms which have little impact on the delivery of services to the public.

"The comhairle must always strike the right balance between spending its limited resources on improving services to the public and internal management processes," Mr Burr commented.

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