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Highland Council officials accused of ‘an assault’ on elected representatives roles over school access

By Scott Maclennan

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Councillor Helen Crawford outside Beauly Primary School where access may be problematic.
Councillor Helen Crawford outside Beauly Primary School where access may be problematic.

High ranking officials at Highland Council have decided elected councillors, MSPs and MPS must get permission from education bosses before visiting schools in what has been labelled “an assault” on their ability to represent locals.

A new protocol was agreed on April 8 by the corporate management team after MSP Edward Mountain raised the issue in the Scottish Parliament. He felt he had been blocked from visiting Charleston Academy.

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The corporate management team is made up of the chief executive, his deputy, the executive chief officers, the heads of finance, HR, governance and performance, NHSH adult services representative, and the communications and business managers.

They decided that “all visits to schools by elected representatives should have prior approval from the executive chief officer” (ECO) for education or another education leader nominated by them.

That means in order to visit any school Highland councillors, MSPs and MPS will have to first ask permission from the current education ECO Nicky Grant but the problem is she is on “approved leave” when the new protocol was decided.

Under a section titled the “Protocol Principles” the corporate management team say there should be a “presumption” to approve such visits and representatives should get “fair and equitable treatment”.

But that it “is not considered appropriate for elected representatives to visit a school without prior notification” – in fact there are eight stages any elected representative must go through to conduct a visit.

The council says that with 200 schools frequent visit requests it is “important to have clear and reasonable guidelines” particularly over how visits are arranged and approved as well as to “ensure there is no disruption to education”.

But that it “is not considered appropriate for elected representatives to visit a school without prior notification” – in fact there are eight stages any elected representative must go through to conduct a visit.

Aird and Loch Ness Councillor Helen Crawford pointed out what she thinks is wrong with the new set of rules.

“As an elected member of Highland Council, I am concerned that I now have fewer rights to visit and engage with our hardworking teachers than I had when I was unelected,” she said.

“It is crucial that our councillors be able to engage with, listen to and learn from our teachers, without first having to seek permission from the executive chief officer for education.

“And likewise that teaching staff feel they have fulsome access to councillors. I am concerned this new protocol is essentially distancing councillors from what is happening in our schools and therefore our ability to try to improve standards.

“We are elected to represent and this is an assault on that ability. And we have to ask why it is that the council seeks to control our access in this way.

“Since being elected two years ago, I have visited numerous schools, sometimes by way of a formal invitation but more often a last minute request to pop in, always a valuable opportunity to hear what’s happening and therefore be equipped to speak as best I can on behalf of our fantastic teachers.

“I am deeply concerned that this will now be subject to obtaining advance, formal permission.”

A spokesperson for the council said: “A new protocol has been agreed which sets out arrangements and clarifies governance for visits by elected members to schools. The council is pleased to receive visits to our schools by elected members.

“The council has 200 schools and receives frequent requests to visit and it is important to have clear and reasonable guidelines about how visits are arranged and approved, to avoid any confusion, and to allow relevant officers to attend to support these visits, as well as ensure there is no disruption to education, particularly around exam times.

“Previous guidance has been in relation to pre-election periods. Permission for photography or media visits to Council premises was previously in place through our media protocol. The new protocol clarifies existing guidance around school visits.”

The process is as follows:

1) Whether directly by the elected representatives or through a head teacher or another member of staff, notification of a request to visit a school should be made to ecoel.support@highland.gov.uk.

2) The request will be referred to the Executive Chief Officer Education for approval. Such requests will be considered in a timely manner, and it would be expected that in most cases it would be appropriate to engage with the relevant Head Teacher.

3) It will ultimately be for the Executive Chief Officer Education or their nominated representative to determine the parameters and conditions of such a visit and whether other Council Officer(s) should be in attendance to support the visit.

4) If the visit has been authorised, then the Education Service will issue a formal invite and undertake the necessary arrangements to facilitate the visit.

5) There may be circumstances when such a visit is not appropriate, for example during exam times, and this should be clearly communicated in any correspondence with the elected representative.

6) In relation to visits by MSPs/MPs, the Education Service will ensure that the Corporate Communications office and the Policy Manager are informed of the visit.

7) Media attendance or photography will not be permitted, except when agreed in advance (such as a school opening, presentation etc).

8) The Policy Manager will ensure that the Senior Leadership Group are aware of any visit by an MSP/MP.

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