02 February 2021

Education and Children's Services Committee Round-up

Aberdeenshire Council’s Education and Children’s Services Committee met on Thursday 28 January to discuss a range of issues, including the introduction of school counsellors to support the positive mental health of young people across the local area’s secondary schools. Read the full story on this online.


Committee Chair Cllr Gillian Owen opened the meeting by welcoming new member Cllr Jim Gifford into the fold. Cllr Judy Whyte has gone on to support Communities Committee as Vice Chair.


Picking up on a question arising from an update about the progress of actions following the last meeting, Director of Education and Children’s Services Laurence Findlay was keen to assure councillors that parental engagement is more important than ever in the context of the pandemic. Parent council chairs have underlined through ongoing engagement meetings with Laurence that they are seeing an increase in attendance at their meetings and parents are very engaged in the work of schools, even from a distance. Laurence also highlighted some positive examples of best practice from across Aberdeenshire, citing Westhill Academy’s recent surveys with both young people and parents, demonstrating young people are very engaged in their learning.


A presentation highlighting the importance of embedding equalities monitoring across all aspect of the council’s work was well-received by members. View the Equalities Presentation online for an overview which explains why it is essential equalities duties are integrated into day-to-day working, particularly for public bodies. A piece of work is ongoing at the moment to develop an online integrated impact assessment system – bringing together all required impact assessments, from equalities to children’s rights to town centre first considerations – under one umbrella.

Councillors highlighted a willingness to ensure their commitment to equalities monitoring is as robust as possible and a training workshop will be set up for a future date.
A Covid-19 Update given by Laurence Findlay highlighted the work of schools and services rising to a challenging situation which is ongoing. Cllr Owen as chair stressed how pleased she is with the work of services and offered “sincere thanks to everyone for everything you continue to do at this crucial time.”
Laurence offered a snapshot of attendance figures, explaining that around 9% of Aberdeenshire’s pupils have been in school at some point during this lockdown so far, just slightly higher than the national average. He also emphasized how positive staff attendance is and noted good progress with rolling out additional devices. As Head of Education, Vincent Docherty is taking a lead on ensuring as much consistency of approach across Aberdeenshire as possible but there will always be a balance to be struck in terms of pupil-led learning and live online learning at a school level. The committee’s secondary teacher representative agreed that while some families would prefer more live learning, others are less approving of the restrictive nature of having set times to engage with teachers and to complete learning.
In terms of an SQA assessment update, Vincent explained: “We are involved in some of the national discussions taking place and Aberdeenshire is standing out in terms of our aspirations for how best to take the assessment process forward. Building on what was delivered as part of last year’s process of estimating grades, we have a strong team ready to support cross moderation of work.”
This will involve secondary departments, SQA trained teachers, schools’ senior leadership teams and then support at an authority level looking across historical data as well as asking questions of colleagues to ensure this process is as robust as possible. The SQA will verify the process rather than individuals’ coursework this time. Committee members said they were aware many young people who are due to be assessed feel very anxious about it all and agreed that everyone is very much looking forward to getting back into the classroom.
Vice Chair Cllr Rosemary Bruce commented: “I’d really like to underline our immense thanks to teachers and support staff. As a parent I absolutely appreciate the immense amount of work going on to support pupils in the senior phase as well as our younger students.”
Laurence himself led a session on Developing the Young Workforce for practitioners as part of the Northern Alliance’s Promoting Equity Week last September and explained that officers have been involved in a year full of a huge amount of activity which is having an impact across a geographical area which takes up more than half of Scotland. The impact this has on attainment will be seen in years to come.
One of the biggest developments since the Northern Alliance last shared an update with committee has been each local authority committing to the recruitment of a digital head teacher to harness the future potential of online learning. This move was agreed before the pandemic but is proving very useful, with those in post delivering on behalf of e-Sgoil’s Lockdown Live sessions as well as a range of other activity.
Cllrs are very pleased with the progress, and the number and depth of workstream activity, and enjoyed an engaging debate about the importance of addressing the poverty-related attainment gap. The recommendations to note the progress and financial implications were agreed.
A full news update from Northern Alliance officers will be shared next week and you can view the full committee report on the website.
A report seeking to approve the rezoning of Hillside School, and the recommendation that the Leathan Fields site should not be rezoned to Portlethen or Fishermoss schools was also agreed. View the report.
The committee was also asked to consider the comments of Marr Councillors and make a decision to agree a way forward for Gartly School. Pupils had to move out of the school building due to an oil leak at the end of 2018 and despite officers’ and contractors’ best efforts the site remains contaminated.

While elected members acknowledged Marr Area Committee’s preference to ‘Proceed with remediation work and reinstatement of Gartly School,’ E&CS Committee has opted to agree the option to: ‘Conduct a full options appraisal and extensive engagement on all options including reinstatement of Gartly School.’

Committee Chair Cllr Owen began by underlining that the priority will always be the safety and wellbeing of our school communities. Director of Education and Children’s Services Laurence Findlay then went on to introduce the report by thanking parents and pupils at both Gartly and Rhynie schools for their patience, and staff for all the work they have done.

Laurence also explained that regardless of which option members decided on, he does not think it is appropriate to maintain the status quo for too much longer, and highlighted the reference to mothballing in the report as a potential interim option. He is keen to point out that any decision to mothball the school in the interim does not alter the requirement for consultation on the future of the school. Many hours have been spent considering implications of the various options by both officers and councillors.

Committee members took part in a very full discussion about the report, acknowledging that this is a very difficult situation for all involved and a difficult decision to make. The dilemma for officers as well as councillors is due to the fact the acceptable defined maximum level of contamination for the existing site to be reinstated as a school is zero. They are keen to see all options for the local area to be developed in full, recognising that it is important to consider the long-term benefits of all possible options, for the community and for the school.

Officers are now expected to complete a full options appraisal, including the option to reinstate the school as well as further developed alternatives, and return to the committee in June. Ongoing engagement with parents and carers as well as staff will remain an absolute priority and the learning estates team will be in touch with families soon to discuss the next steps.
View the report.
A paper on Education and Children’s Services Charging Policy was also brought forward, asking elected members to note proposals to maintain affordable prices for accessing education facilities, agree to revise education prices to match those of Live Life Aberdeenshire, agree the proposed new prices, agree interim charging measures to recover the cost of supplementary cleaning and to delegate authority to the Head of Resources and Performance to approve pricing changes for keyholder lets without referring back to committee until August.
Councillors agreed the recommendations with an amendment to reflect agreement on the proposed charges with a revised inflationary rate. View the report.