In response to school merger protest
By Councillor Maureen Henry
Over the past years, like every other local authority in the country, East Dunbartonshire Council has suffered huge cuts to its budget from the Scottish Government. We can argue all day as who is to blame for the unprecedented rafts of cuts, but, the reality is that Councils have to deal with the situation, ensuring that resources are distributed in a fair and equitable manner and that we are spending our budget that ensures best value for all our residents.
The reality is that East Dunbartonshire has too many primary schools and, while other councils have dealt with this situation by merging schools and building new schools, EDC is now dealing with schools that are under capacity or in a poor state of repair or both. It is gross misuse of resources to be spending huge amounts of money keeping open schools that are half full or need substantial repairs. It is much better to invest in new schools, and with the savings made, allow us to provide much needed resources to all our schools. By merging schools the ensuing savings will allow the council to borrow to build new schools. A few years ago the council embarked on a highly imaginative programme of school improvement in the secondary estate and we now have six new state-of-the-art schools fit to deliver high quality education to our young people. EDC wants to carry out an improvement programme for our primary estate and we are determined to do all we can to secure investment education
As well as being vice convenor of education, I also sit on the social work committee and it is on this committee that the harsh reality of huge budget cuts is obvious; as a council we are determined to minimise the impact of cuts on our most vulnerable and needy residents. As the school population in East Dunbartonshire decreases, our elderly population is increasing. Many of them need support to stay in their own homes, surrounded by friends and families and many carers who look after our elderly and disabled residents need support. Some of our children and young people face horrendous family circumstances and we need to ensure that programmes that support them are resourced. In extreme circumstances some children and young people are taken away from the family home and are put into care. These children need additional resources to ensure their safety and wellbeing. I could fill pages listing the competing needs for resources, resources that every year are becoming scarcer. Can I add that the welfare reform now in place will place many of our most vulnerable families in very serious difficulties.
St Joseph’s Primary School in Milngavie is 55 per cent under capacity with a roll of 127 and St Andrew’s Primary School in Bearsden (1.5 miles away from St Joseph’s) is also under capacity but with more than double the roll of St Joseph’s. When the council embarked on the consultation to look at options for primary school mergers, at stakeholders meetings, the merger of St Joseph’s with St Andrew’s, building a new school on the St Andrew’s site was put forward as an option worthy of consideration.
As with all proposed mergers, it was deemed more suitable for the smaller school to move to the larger school site. In this case St Joseph’s pupils would move to the new school on St Andrew’s site. The St Andrew’s parents overwhelmingly agreed to this option while the St Joseph’s parents overwhelmingly rejected it. However, before the consultation was carried out, residents were advised that the status quo was not an option and the council would need to make hard decisions in order to secure appropriate levels of educational funding that ensure our schools are meeting the needs of Curriculum for Excellence. At the council meeting on March 27 it was agreed to take the proposed merger between St Andrews and St Josephs to the formal consultation stage with a final decision taken in October.
In his article in last week’s SCO (St Joseph’s, a test case) Mr McFadyen, one of the St Joseph’s parents, suggested that a joint campus with a non-denominational school should be considered, an option I know that many parents in St Joseph’s would prefer. Archbishop Tartaglia has said his preference is that both St Joseph’s and St Andrew’s should remain on their present sites but, in my discussions with the Church on this issue, it accepts it is the role of the council to make the final decision and is very sympathetic to the financial plight of all local authorities. The Church will only consider a joint campus when there is no Catholic education in an area and I hardly think moving St Joseph’s to a new school 1.5 miles away from its present site can be considered as not providing Catholic education. I do accept that the children from St Joseph’s will need to travel by bus to the new school but many pupils across East Dunbartonshire and most areas in west Scotland travel to their Catholic primary and secondary schools. The other argument is that the children will lose the vital link with their parishes but both St Andrews and St Josephs have wonderful parish priests who will work with parents and teachers to ensure this will not happen.
I was a teacher in Catholic schools while my husband has recently retired as depute head teacher in a large Catholic secondary and my daughter teaches in a Catholic secondary. My children attended St Andrew’s in Bearsden and John Paul Academy in Summerston and, yes, they travelled by bus to John Paul. I have been criticised for not supporting Catholic education in Milngavie and, of course, nothing is further from the truth. St Joseph’s parents accuse the Labour Party of turning its back on Catholic education but at the council meeting we voted to build two new Catholic primary schools in East Dunbartonshire. However, over the last number of years the children from St Joseph’s do not progress in their faith development as the majority of them attend the local non-denominational secondary school. This is an excellent school but we have two excellent Catholic secondary schools in East Dunbartonshire, St Ninian’s in Kirkintilloch and Turnbull High in Bishopbriggs, both within easy travelling distance from Milngavie. Mr McFadyen advised me he would have sent his children to a Catholic secondary school if there was one in Milngavie. I make no comment as it is the parents’ right to decide where their children are educated.
Mr McFadyen suggested that there was a split in the Labour Group re school mergers; this is complete and utter nonsense and this remark has caused real anger among my colleagues. The group took a collective decision to go forward to the formal consultation on the mergers put forward and other Labour councillors had to take the hard decisions to merge schools in their own wards and they too have been accused of not supporting their communities. I am not sure if Mr McFadyen attended the council meeting on March 27 but, if he was there, he certainly did not see awkward body language. What he did see was very serious Labour councillors who were not shying away from taking very difficult decisions. Mr McFadyen is being disingenuous when he says that we are not merging some of the non-denominational schools in Milngavie. He is well aware that our primary school programme is a staged process which will take about fifteen years to complete. The non-denominational schools will be subject to the review programme after we complete the first stage of new builds.
The proposal to merge St Joseph’s and St Andrew’s in a new school on the St Andrew’s site has now gone forward to the formal consultation stage. Can I stress that the Council has not made a decision to go forward with the merger and the decision will be taken in October after the formal stages have been completed. I would plead with Mr McFadyen and the other parents to engage in constructive talks with local councillors, clergy and with the parents of St Andrew’s. I would plead with the Church to become engaged with this process to facilitate talks and negotiations. I want our children in Bearsden and Milngavie to have access to a new school with all the amazing educational, sport and social benefits that can deliver. Please do not allow our Catholic Faith to be defined by streets and narrow boundaries but, as the universal Church, let us work together.
n Maureen Henry was head of the Hospital Education Service before being election as Labour councillor for Milngavie in May 2012. She is a parishioner of St Andrew’s Bearsden and a member of the SVDP in the parish.