07 October 2021

Committee round-up: Education and Children's Services 07.10.21

An update about Education and Children’s Services’ approach to mothballing schools, a progress report on the Northern Alliance regional improvement collaborative and a comparative perspective on a national review of assessment were among the items considered at the latest Education and Children’s Service Committee. 

School mothballing process debated 

Director of Education and Children’s Services Laurence Findlay updated members of the committee that the service would begin a mothballing process once a school roll falls to eight pupils or under. He told the committee the beginning of the process did not necessarily mean that a school would close, and the ultimate decision still remained with the Director. 

Cllr Alison Evison proposed an amendment to the recommendations because in her view having an arbitrary number would result in anxiety amongst parents and carers.

 “Our point is mothballing should be made by the Director, based on each school, and in consultation with the community and elected members,” she said. “My concern is this would raise fears and uncertainty amongst parents. This number is not something we can accept,” she said. Cllr Louise McAllister seconded the amendment.   

Maxine Booth, Quality Improvement Manager in the Learning Estates Team, explained the number eight would act as a trigger for assessment. She said the City of Edinburgh Council assess occupancy levels; Falkirk Council begin the mothballing process when a school roll falls to 12; whilst in Fife Council the process starts at 18. She added assessments of housing, school year groups and school occupancy rates would inform the service before a school is mothballed. 

Cllr Sarah Dickinson said: “I don’t see the number eight as a threat but as a trigger. I am comfortable with that. It gives clarity. Perfectly content with recommendations as given.” 

Cllr Jim Gifford added having a formal process would be useful, but he would prefer a higher number. 

Cllr Martin Ford said he was concerned about the untended consequences of the recommendations because in his view it might lead to parents and carers deciding to send their children to alternative schools when the school roll falls to eight or under, resulting in the school closing. “If we pass this paper today (Thursday, October 7) people at those schools will perceive it as a threat. Schools may close inadvertently through parental behaviour,” he said. 

Cllr Rosemary Bruce disagreed arguing the recommendations gave increased certainty to parents and carers. 

Cllr Gifford moved to support the recommendations as set out in the report. He was seconded by Cllr Bruce. 

Following a vote, members voted four in favour of Cllr Evison’s motion and nine against. There was one member absent. 

For more information about the report please visit https://online.aberdeenshire.gov.uk/Apps/News/release.aspx?newsID=8328 

Committee members updated on OECD review of assessment 

Mr Findlay gave a summary of the proposals by the OECD to review assessment methods in schools which have been accepted by the Scottish Government. 

He described the country as having a 21st century curriculum but a 19th century assessment model. He proposed elected members agree to a workshop being held to discuss the plans in greater detail. 

Education representative Billy Bilsland said he is pleased to see there are recommendations for a national body to oversee and support schools. He said teachers are supportive of the idea of a body that supports them. He added he was very pleased there is support for class contact time outlined in the report. 

Cllr Evison supported the Director’s suggestion of a workshop to be held for elected members to understand the issues better. She said: “I hope Aberdeenshire will stand ready to develop those recommendations. The need is for us to be agile, to embrace planned and coordinated change. It is up to this committee and officers to ensure we do that. There are no easy answers.” 

Cllr Ford described the issues raised in the report as fundamental ones the committee should participate in. He said some pupils would be well suited of assessment done by examination whilst others would not. 

Cllr Bruce said everyone’s views need to be taken into account when the topic of assessment is considered. 

Cllr Gifford said the committee should not work in isolation as in his view there is a much bigger picture. He wondered where the numbers of teachers and staff would come from to provide greater levels of class contact time. “We need to have the resource. We need some serious assistance from government at a national level if we are going to do this properly,” he added. 

Cllr Charlie Buchan said: “This debate has been fascinating. It appears the pendulum has been swinging towards the position that exams are evil. It might be right. This fear has been expressed in certain European countries as well. There is an unconscious bias towards children with high literacy skills in teacher assessments. Teacher assessments are not the panacea. The old-fashioned exam system has is an advantage of fairness.”

Members of the committee agreed the recommendations outlined in the report and for a workshop exploring the issues mentioned in the report to proceed. 

Northern Alliance progress considered 

Both committee chair Cllr Gillian Owen and Mr Findlay introduced the report. They highlighted teacher engagement was particularly high in Aberdeenshire at the moment. 

Mr Bilsland said he was pleased to see a focus on sharing resources, collaboration, and best practice. Whilst he welcomed the inclusion of digital transformation, he suggested the transformation may be a challenge in schools as access to IT during remote learning was difficult. 

Cllr Evison expressed concern about what she saw as a scant reference to employability as it was not only a national issue but in her view an Aberdeenshire one too. “Employability and what we can do to support that is key. How can we take that forward at a quicker rate?” she asked. 

Mr Findlay said Cllr Evison made a good point about Developing the Young Workforce (DYW). He explained the Northern Alliance chose to not focus specifically on DYW because the area is so large so instead there has been a local focus. He said the Covid-19 pandemic may mean thought is given to this approach. 

Cllr Dickinson asked what the barriers are to greater engagement. 

Mr Findlay replied whilst engagement is good there is always room for improvement. He said Twitter is used frequently to advertise events and training opportunities, there is a regular newsletter, and the Northern Alliance is considering setting up a Facebook account. He said there were internal blockers in other councils, that this is not an Aberdeenshire problem, that stopped information being shared across the alliance. “We need to keep doing all we can to spread the word,” he added. 

Cllr Gifford said the Northern Alliance is an exemplar of how to do it properly and Aberdeenshire is getting very good value out of being a member. 

The recommendations outlined in the report were agreed by the committee. 

News releases 

There have been news releases issued on the following committee reports:
• Carbon budget six monthly update
• Adoption service annual report
• Fostering service annual report
• Aberdeenshire Council Early Learning and Childcare Funded Providers 
• Tackling Poverty and Inequalities – Child Action Report
• Stonehaven primary school provision
• Fraserburgh primary school provision 

Other matters 
• Committee members learnt about the success of the Live Life Aberdeenshire ECS Holiday Recovery programme
• Members were updated on financial performance.
• The consultation on a draft risk management policy was also considered.
• The full agenda is available on the Aberdeenshire Council website.
• A webcast of the committee meeting is also available.