'These will be my proposals, and I will stand up and defend them'

ARGYLL and Bute Council's new education spokesperson, Helensburgh Liberal Democrat councillor Ellen Morton, visited Bute this week to meet teachers and parents as the authority's controversial review of its primary school estate enters a new phase.

Councillor Morton took on the job after the collapse of the coalition between SNP and independent councillors in November over the original school consulation plans, with the authority's Lib Dem and Conservative members stepping in to form a new administration with the Alliance of Independent Councillors.

Those original school proposals have now been scrapped, and Cllr Morton has set a target of March 3 to compile a new set of plans, based on a review of the entire primary school estate, as the authority tries to reduce education spending by 1.9 million a year.

We spoke to Cllr Morton this week after she visited the island to talk to parents and teachers, and began by asking her what she had found out from her day on Bute.

"I went to all three primary schools," she told us. "I went to North Bute first, then to the primary part of Rothesay Joint Campus and met a number of the staff and kids, and then went to meet the group of parents from North Bute.

"I also managed to visit St Andrew's, just as the school was closing for the day, and met the head teacher and staff there. So I wasn't just going to North Bute.

"I left with very positive impressions. I really enjoyed my visits to all three schools. All the children were very well behaved - much more so than when I was teaching! - and all the staff were very positive.

"Clearly there are tensions and anxieties in all the schools, but most obviously in North Bute. As far as my meeting with the parents from North Bute are concerned, I felt it was very, very positive.

"They had a very professional attitude, and were very understanding of the difficulties and the issues that need to be addressed."

Few subjects are guaranteed to stir more emotion in the world of local government than the prospect of schools being closed; with that in mind, it's hard to stop parents and staff drawing conclusions from what might otherwise seem to be the most innocuous turn of events. So is there anything that should be read into Cllr Morton's visit to Bute?

"I certainly don't want people to think that if Ellen Morton comes to visit you, you're on any kind of hit list," she continued.

"The parent council at North Bute had asked to meet me, and I was happy to do that, but this is a review of the whole of the council's primary school estate, and I don't want other parents to think that I went to one school but not to any of the others.

"I think parents understand the principle involved. The closure of one school on Bute, if it happened, would have an impact on the other two schools, but in some other areas the issue is not as clear-cut as it is on Bute, and people, understandably, are terribly sensitive and anxious. Some people are not putting two and two together and getting five, they're putting two and two together and getting 1,033."

The original consultation proposals were criticised in many quarters for what campaigners believed - and indeed still believe - were errors and inaccuracies contained in the supporting documents. Indeed, the highlighting of those mistakes played a large part in persuading the 36 Argyll and Bute councillors to unanimously back the suspension of the consultation, and to vote in favour of a new set of plans being drawn up.

But those new plans, like the old ones, seem certain to include factors such as travelling times, school capacities and money which could be saved from moving pupils to another establishment. So to what will Cllr Morton be attaching top priority when she draws up her own proposals?

"My steer on this is that it has to be educationally beneficial for all the children in Argyll and Bute," she continued.

"It's not about the council saving money. You have to be certain, as a responsible councillor, that every penny that is spent is spent wisely. If you spend unwisely on a building that is not needed, you're not spending money on interactive whiteboards, teachers, classroom assistants, special needs assistants and other things that are of educational benefit.

"It's not about saving money just for the sheer hell of it. My proposals will be my proposals, and I will stand up and defend them.

"People will not like it if their school goes to consultation, but I would at least expect them to know that I had gone and visited them and talked to them with an open mind about their specific school.

"None of the parents or head teachers I spoke to on Bute were prepared to say that the education provided at their school was better than at the other two.

"No single factor, whether it's travel distances, capacity or the money involved, will be the one deciding factor in determining my consultation proposals. I'm not going to allow anybody to pull me into arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin."

Concern has been expressed in more than one quarter about whether the plan to draw up new proposals, to carry out public consultation and then to bring the final recommendations into effect by October of this year is a realistic one. It's certainly an ambitious target: so why is Cllr Morton determined to stick to the current timescale, rather than to extend the process by a few months to allow more time for reflection?

"I think the sooner the uncertainty is over for parents, teachers and pupils, the better," she said.

"The council's consideration of the original proposals was postponed for three weeks in November, but I still don't know what was achieved by doing that - except that it pushed the implementation date back from June this year to October. The longer this drags on, the worse it is for all concerned.

"I can't say definitively whether the final proposals can be implemented within that time frame, because it isn't entirely in the gift of the council - there will be involvement from, for example, the Scottish Government and HMIE, and it's even possible that the weather could hold things up as it has disrupted so much already this winter.

"But a lot of the background work involved has already been done, and I've met education officers twice already and given them clear remits. I'm also going hell for leather round schools.

"I really do think that it's better if it's done as quickly as possible. We've been at this as a council for three and a half years already, and I think it's dragged on something dreadful.

"I once taught in a school which had the threat of closure hanging over it for all the five years I was there, and that can have an awful effect on everybody involved.

"Even if the public weren't aware of it already, we've been engaged in this since 2007, and much of the material is already there, while many responses to the original consultation have already come in."

It should be a surprise to no-one, given Argyll and Bute's financial situation and the fury generated by the authority's original school proposals, that those in charge of education at the authority are at the centre of a firestorm quite unlike anything to have engulfed the council since it was established in 1996.

So with that in mind, where's the attraction in agreeing to become spokesperson for probably the most sensitive policy area of all at such a difficult time for local government in general and Argyll and Bute in particular?

"Nobody I know gets elected to close schools or to slash spending," Cllr Morton told us.

"That might be the case if you're the sort of person who looks on becoming a councillor as the first step on the political ladder, and you want to catch the eye of your party leadership, but that's not the kind of politics that goes on in Argyll and Bute.

"When you make up your mind to do something, you do it. I took on the education portfolio for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it's not a 'ward issue' for me because, with the exception of a very small part of Luss, none of the affected schools are in my ward.

"Some councillors had three or four schools from the original consultation in their ward, and how could you ask that councillor to take on the education spokesperson's role?

"Nobody can level that accusation at me. Perhaps that gives parents a degree of confidence that I'm genuinely not trying to manipulate the situation to suit my own ends."

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