OUR latest Councillor Column is written by Cllr Richard Trail (SNP, Helensburgh and Lomond South).

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ARGYLL and Bute Council’s education service has come to a crossroads.

The declining population and low birth rates are inevitably causing a drop in school rolls. This presents a real dilemma for schools in rural areas.

When the number of pupils attending a school drops to single figures can the pupils get the full benefit of a school education? Can suitably qualified candidates be recruited to schools with only a handful of pupils?

The result of recent efforts to recruit head teachers for rural schools have been depressingly negative. Several advertised posts have had no applicants and others have only attracted candidates that were not suitable to be appointed.

The school rolls are in a long-term downward trend. In 2001 the total number of pupils in Argyll’s schools was 13,000, now it is 10,000. By the end of this decade it is expected to be down by another 500. This has consequences for teachers. The budget for teaching staff is calculated to maintain the pupil to staff ratio constant. Fewer pupils leads directly to fewer staff.

There is also concern for the leadership of the schools. It is estimated that head teachers of small schools are only able to carry out the leadership function for one third of their time. The rest of their time is spent doing the work of a teacher.

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The proposed solution is to link schools into collectives, or clusters. The intent is for schools to collaborate and share resources.

Each school in the collective will have its own head, though the role will be renamed head of school. They will form the leadership group of the collective with an additional separate appointment of an executive head teacher. This latter role will focus on the leadership of the collective and supporting the individual school heads.

The proposals are adamant that there will not be any school closures and that individual school identities will be retained.

The advantages for the collective are summed up as better leadership of schools. The senior leadership team will focus on leading the school. It claims that there will be more teachers in classrooms without specifying how that will be achieved. The improved collaboration between schools will be beneficial so long as the resources are fairly distributed.

Will the school collectives be an encouragement for suitably qualified candidates to apply for the head of school roles? That is one of the key questions. We need good teachers that have high expectations of their pupils.

A public consultation on the plans is available on the council’s website. Parents and teachers are well advised to read the full proposals and respond with their comments. The consultation is open until March 4.