Alastair Majury on St Mary’s Episcopal Primary School, Dunblane

St Mary’s EPS Dunblane

I was a pupil at St Mary’s EPS when it was under Central Regional Council control and the boys toilets were outdoors. I understand that new features since my time there and from when it was a self-governing school include the nursery extension, indoor toilets for the boys, a general purpose room, a first-aid room, library resource room, computer suite and a computer (as well as television and video player) in each classroom, a school office, a staff room, a lift for disabled access and a video entry security system.

Stirling Council has decided that — St Mary’s Episcopal Primary School information indicates that the projected roll for 2019–20 is 65 pupils which, reflecting national guidance, can be organised into three classes.

What are your thoughts on this should St Mary’s Episcopal Primary School be maintained with four classes or be reduced to three classes?

I would be keen to know your thoughts and I am sure that the Stirling Observer (john.rowbotham@reachplc.com) would also be keen to know what your thoughts are on this topic.

The motto of St Mary’s Episcopal Primary school in Dunblane is “Where great oaks from little acorns grow”. It’s a fitting enough motto for any primary school, but as the only one in Scotland to opt out from local authority control, in October 1995, under a previous Conservative Government’s legislation.

The school was forcibly returned to the control of Stirling Council in April 2003 (before it was self-governing the school was under the control of Central Regional Council).

When it was self-governing St Mary’s was voted Scotland’s best small primary but has been described as “elitist” by Labour councillors (Read more here).

Given that St Mary’s has become one of the most famous schools in Scotland, the first thing which strikes visitors on finding it tucked away up on a hill is just what a small school it is. The original building, substantially enlarged and improved since 1995, is over 160 years old.

At the Wednesday 8 December 1999 morning meeting of the Scottish Parliament Education, Culture and Sport Committee — Full details available here.

Some key excerpts are:

Alistair McCulloch (St Mary’s Episcopal Primary School, Dunblane): Cath Prescott is the head teacher at St Mary’s; Paul Nelson is an elected parent on the board of management and the chairman of the school’s finance committee; Gordon Scott is the vice-chairman of the board and an elected parent. I am an elected parent and the chairman of the board of St Mary’s.

I would like to thank the committee for inviting representatives of the board of St Mary’s to give evidence on how we believe the improvement in Scottish education bill will impact on our school. Eight of the 32 sections of the bill relate exclusively to the removal of the self-governing legislation. Its removal will hand the management of our school to Stirling Council.

The board recognises that the concept of self-governing schools is politically and ideologically unacceptable to many members of the Parliament. In practice, however, it has been the ability of the school to manage its own affairs over the past four years which has made it so successful.

The board of St Mary’s is committed to the principles outlined in the foreword of “Improving our Schools”, the consultation document on the improvement in Scottish education bill: to raise standards; to be responsive to local needs; to “give every child the best start in life so that they can have the best opportunity for life”; to involve parents and the local community in the school; and to aim for “excellence in schools and never accept second best.”

Why does the board believe that the school is succeeding? As was highlighted in the latest publication by the education statistics division, 97 per cent of our children attained the appropriate five to 14 level for reading, as compared to 73 per cent for Scotland and 74 for Stirling district. The figure for writing was 97 per cent for our pupils, compared with 60 per cent for Scotland and 62 per cent for Stirling district. Our figure for mathematics was 97 per cent, compared with 76 per cent for Scotland and 77 per cent for Stirling district.

Our children are realising their academic potential. We are a positively socially inclusive school. The children have a wide variety of social, physical and emotional challenges. The child is at the centre of all our decision making. We are highly responsive to local needs, our board is widely represented by the community of Dunblane, and we are more accountable than most schools because parents and staff elect the majority of board members.

Our costs are low. The cost per pupil is significantly less than the average for other comparable primary schools. Our school is at capacity, and we have a long waiting list at almost all stages. We believe that our success is due to our ability to manage our affairs unhindered by local authority interference and bureaucracy and free to make our own decisions.

We are not funded preferentially, but we are free to use our resources where we feel the need is greatest, for example, in the funding of increased staffing for support for learning. That gives teachers, pupils, parents and board members a communal feeling of ownership, which fosters a strong sense of ethos, allegiance, pride and responsibility.

St Mary’s is a small school with only three composite primary classes and a nursery, yet, by any yardstick, our school is highly successful, and offers parents a choice, which many have taken.

The board realises that the self-governing legislation will be removed, but is it logical, sensible and right to undermine a school which is succeeding so well?

The Minister for Children and Education, in the foreword to the consultation document, states:

“Education will be our highest priority with the stated intention of earning a world class reputation for the Scottish education system.”

We believe that the removal of St Mary’s ability to manage its own affairs will lead to a lowering of standards. Aside from the increase in bureaucracy, the handover of a substantial part of our funding to Stirling Council would undoubtedly lead to cuts in staff, which would, in turn, lead to a worse adult-pupil ratio. That would result in less support for those who need it most. Ultimately, it will be the children who suffer, especially those children with special educational needs.

The Scottish Executive can, however, achieve its stated aim of removing the self-governing legislation, while allowing our school to manage its own affairs, by giving us grant-aided status such as is presently enjoyed, with great success, by Jordanhill School in Glasgow. We believe that such a solution would recognise and support the success that is St Mary’s, and yet be politically acceptable.

and

Alistair McCulloch: I will answer that by referring to my initial statement that we would lose a proportion of our funding. As you will understand, St Mary’s is funded by a grant from the Scottish Executive. It is divided into two pieces: one is school level expenditure, the other is central costs. That is fundamental to the impact of any change in status.

We spend 5 per cent of our grant on administration. Central costs represent about 14 per cent of our grant, but we do not use 14 per cent on administration, so most of that goes on staffing. If we lose our current management status, we will lose that 14 per cent immediately; that is what happens. That will have an immediate impact, and we will have to lose staff — a lot of staff. In effect, we will go back to having our three core teachers, with perhaps a little secretarial support, but that would be it.

If we go to Stirling Council, we are told that we will be part of its quality assurance framework; we already have a quality assurance framework in our school. We are told that we will be part of its in-service staff development programme; we already have an in-service staff development programme. All the other programmes are already in place in our school. I therefore find it difficult to see how a change could be positive. At the moment Stirling Council is saying that we are overfunded, so is it likely that it will say to us: “Don’t worry about the 14 per cent. You can just keep it”?

Paul Nelson (St Mary’s Episcopal Primary School, Dunblane): It is not for us to define what the benefits would be of going back under council control. In consultation with the Executive, our local MSP, Dr Sylvia Jackson, has defined the benefits. In a letter to the school board on 24 September, she said:

“You are also seeking clarification of reasons why the Scottish Executive and myself believe that the School should return to local authority management. Aside from it being an election commitment in Scotland, the advantages of the range of support services and professional expertise offered by the local authority is important.

“For example, Stirling Council’s Quality Assurance Policy Framework deals with the key areas of: school development planning; audit/self evaluation; and targets for improvement. The staff development programme includes: quality assuring in-school programme; staff development and review; sharing good practice; peer group support and cluster planning. Advice and support services include: ICT policy and strategy; support for children . . . ; access policies . . . ; support for parents . . . ; and primary/secondary liaison.”

We do not feel that any of those things would suffer as a result of St Mary’s keeping its current status. If you cared to ask our head teacher, she could go through some of the areas in which our school development plan is working at the moment.

and

Nicola Sturgeon: I have a final question. The situation is hypothetical, but I am interested to hear your views. How would you react to the suggestion that you become an independent school?

Alistair McCulloch: By “independent school”, do you mean outwith the state system?

Nicola Sturgeon: Yes.

Alistair McCulloch: That has never been discussed by the board. That has never been on our agenda. We are a highly successful state school. Nobody has come to us so far and told us that we are not successful according to the various criteria that have been established by the Scottish Executive or anybody else. Nobody disputes that we are a successful school. We are a state school. We do not charge. Our admissions policy is standard. There is no examination to enter the school. We have a normal cross-section of children in the school. We have no wish to be a non-state school.

Paul Nelson: We could go further, and say that we are proud to be a state school.

Alistair McCulloch: Absolutely

and

Paul Nelson: I want to relate that comment to a chat that I had with our director of education at an educational conference in Edinburgh. He said to someone else that the school had done a good job but was going to be closed. Afterwards, when I pointed out to him that the school was not going to be closed, he said that he would have done it. He will deny that comment, because he made it only to me. He has closed other small schools.

and

Nicola Sturgeon: I detected from Mr Nelson a fear that I am sure all the witnesses share — that Stirling Council’s intention is eventually to close the school. The school’s current roll is 66, but what is the school’s capacity? Under current legislation, if a school is more than 80 per cent full, any decision on closure has to be referred to the Minister for Children and Education.

Do you believe that those representing St Mary’s (and others) that day were right to fear that Stirling Council would eventually close St Mary’s once it gained control?

Do you think that the move from 4 classrooms to 3 classrooms is a step in that direction?

I would be keen to know your thoughts and I am sure that the Stirling Observer (john.rowbotham@reachplc.com) would also be keen to know what your thoughts are on this topic.

More information about St Mary’s from it’s self-governing days is below and was originally from here.

St Mary’s applied for self-governing status, they say, because the then Central Regional Council agreed to refurbish the school but at the cost of reducing its roll to make it a two-teacher school. “That was purely the reason we opted out,” says Mr McCulloch.

“We had public meetings and had the full support of the parents in opposing the reduction but Central just would not listen. The only way we could dig ourselves out of the hole was to use this new legislation.

“Now, as time has gone on, we’ve found self-governing status works. The pupils are achieving more and this is a very successful and happy school.”

Improvements to the structure and environment, achieved since 1995, are pointed out by headteacher Cath Prescott. New features include the nursery extension, indoor toilets for the boys, a general purpose room, a first-aid room, libraryresource room, computer suite and a computer (as well as television and video player) in each classroom, a school office, a staff room, a lift for disabled access and a video entry security system.

Parent Carola Campbell describes the old school as “antiquated, cramped and decayed with wiring that was a fire hazard” and argues that only self-governing status could have brought about the improvements.

“It’s a successful opt-out school that is cost-efficient because we control where and how the money is spent; and it has a happy atmosphere which it will lose if it goes back to local authority control. I’m totally opposed to that,” she says.

Fellow parent Sue McGowan adds: “My oldest two were here when the school was opting out. It has gone from a good school to a better school. The school has more control over what it does. It’s more flexible and we get better value for money. We could also spend more and spend more effectively on the refurbishment because the money was controlled locally.”

The school used local architects and builders as a matter of principle and sometimes work carried out by local tradesmen is volunteered at no cost.

Mrs Prescott says self-governing status has helped the ethos of the school, too. “It’s all about ownership. The parents and the children literally do have ownership. This all helps with motivation, achievement and involvement,” she says.

“We’ve stressed to parents that, if we go back to local authority control, we do not envisage any change to what actually happens in the classroom, but they are fighting to stay self-governing and they see this very much as fighting for the ethos of the school,” she says.

Drawing contrasts with Stirling Council and national figures (both published by the Scottish Executive) for achievements in reading, writing and mathematics, Mrs Prescott argues that P7 pupils at St Mary’s (average age 12 years) are outstripping S2 pupils (average age 14 years) in levels of attainment.

St Mary’s P7 has, she says, an average reading score of 80 compared to an S2 average for Stirling Council schools of 59 and a national S2 average of 53. For P7 writing, a similar St Mary’s score of 80 compares with a Stirling S2 average of 52 and a national S2 score of 44. In maths, the St Mary’s P7 score is 70, compared to S2 scores of 55 (Stirling) and 47 (national).

St Mary’s pupils are stretched more, stretched to their maximum, according to Lawrie Orr, a parent and a member of the board of management.

“Children of greater ability are progressed at their own rate,” explains Mrs Prescott. “When our pupils arrive at Dunblane High School they have to tread water for a year, waiting for the other pupils to catch up. And it’s not as if we have a selective catchment area. We have presently 21 pupils with special educational needs on staged intervention.”

Parent association member Alison Wallace says: “My daughter loves it so much here that she even wants to come to school at the weekends. Her pals at other primaries are not as motivated and are not doing as well. So, if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.”

Mr Orr describes St Mary’s self-governing status within the state sector as “100 per cent devolved school management”, and the board’s chairman argues that St Mary’s should be seen as a model rather than abolished.

“Stirling is offering us quality assurance. We don’t need it. We have our own quality assurance and quality achievement,” says Mr McCulloch. “They say we’ll be better off, but they don’t say why. Our academic results and our cost effectiveness are practically second to none.

“Maybe people should be looking here for the big idea. Personally, I feel St Mary’s is worth the visit of a minister to see what we’re actually doing. We are one of the highest achieving primaries in Scotland.

“Is it just about us or is there a wider lesson to be learned here?” For parent Brigitte Beck-Woerner, the success of St Mary’s goes beyond measurable levels of achievement. “Education will have to move away from purely performance indicator goals,” she says. “At St Mary’s the whole child is addressed and in terms of social inclusiveness we are ahead of most. Here social inclusion begins from the bottom up.

“My children came here because they wanted to come here and here the teachers take on your concerns, concerns that in my experience were previously brushed off by the local authority, especially with regards to special educational needs. There’s a real inclusive atmosphere here.

“It’s not political for me. It’s about the education of the children. That’s all we want,” she says.

A longer read than normal but I would be keen to know your thoughts and I am sure that the Stirling Observer (john.rowbotham@reachplc.com) would also be keen to know what your thoughts are on this topic.

Alastair Majury resides locally in the historic Scottish city of Dunblane, and is a Senior Regulatory Business Analyst working across the country. Alastair Majury is also a volunteer officer at the local Boys’ Brigade company, a charity which focuses on enriching the lives of children and young people, and building a stronger community. Alastair Majury also serves on the local council (Stirling Council) as Councillor Alastair Majury where he represents the ward of Dunblane and Bridge of Allan, topping the poll.

--

--

--

I am a Chartered Member of CISI, which is the UK’s leading securities and investment professional body. Alastair Majury resides locally in Dunblane.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Mos Act II — Banking for Students

The Role of Imagination in Academia

Introducing the Encantos Storyteaching Platform

The Weekly Anteater

USU Library books, study rooms, databases, price, hours

10 Steps on How to Write a Research Paper

Why I Became a Waldorf Teacher

A lone knight on his steed emerges from a dark forest. A castle with the Grail lies up ahead.

A Curriculum Architect Takes on K-2 Technology: Weeks 16–17

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Alastair Majury

Alastair Majury

I am a Chartered Member of CISI, which is the UK’s leading securities and investment professional body. Alastair Majury resides locally in Dunblane.

More from Medium

Dua Lipa’s hit song ‘Levitating’ slapped with two copyright cases

Darkness Visible

Your Career — It’s a Big World Out There, Even in Closed-System Big Law

If You Build It, They Will Rent