The democratic deficit in Scottish education

andrew mcfAndrew McFadyen is a journalist and a parent at St Joseph’s primary in Milngavie. He’s calling on Scottish Labour to back the campaign to make St Joseph’s the first community-led school in Scotland.


The Labour Party should give three cheers for parents at St Joseph’s Primary school in Milngavie.

The Parent Council’s audacious plan to make St Joseph’s the first community-led school in Scotland featured offers Jim Murphy a chance to do something bold and radical that could benefit children for generations to come.

What began as a campaign to save a popular local school from closure has created a much-needed debate about the democratisation of Scottish education.

For the past three years, parents have been lobbying councillors, signing petitions and marching in their hundreds against East Dunbartonshire’s proposal to close the town’s only Catholic primary and bus the children to a new-build in Bearsden.

One mother remarked in the playground that she had been on more demonstrations in the past few months than in a lifetime of living in Belfast.

Local Labour members have been at the heart of the campaign to save the school. Clydebank & Milngavie CLP unanimously passed a motion urging councillors to come forward with new proposals. It made no difference.

East Dunbartonshire Council’s determination to press-on regardless of public opinion reveals a democratic deficit. Nobody has been able to make them listen. Not parents. Not the church. Not even Labour Party members.

The way we run our schools is the last bastion of post-war centralised planning and it provides the sharpest possible contrast with the grassroots community engagement that characterised the referendum campaign.

Scotland saw a revival of street politics with people who hadn’t voted or taken part for years demanding a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

Until now, the debate about education in Scotland has focused on teacher numbers and exam systems. It is time to talk about who actually runs and operates schools.

St Joseph’s Parent Council plan to hold a public meeting in Milngavie next week to discuss their plans for community ownership in more detail.

The concentration of power in town halls is more in keeping with the 1940s than the 21st Century. Communities have a big stake in education and relevant expertise to offer.

At St Joseph’s, parent volunteers already run the school choir and a variety of after-school clubs from netball to chess.

Our football team was the first in East Dunbartonshire and only the second in Scotland to be awarded the SFA quality mark in 2009. Thursday night training at Douglas Academy attracts 50 boys and girls throughout the season. The team is run entirely by parents.

The lesson is that by engaging parents and drawing on the talents of the whole community schools can do more for pupils and raise attainment.

A community-led St Joseph’s primary could be funded by a direct grant from the Scottish Government in the same way as Jordanhill School, in Glasgow. There would be no fees paid or academic selection of pupils.

In England, there are now over 450 co-operative schools, which give parents, pupils, teachers and local people the opportunity to become members of a community-based trust where everyone works together for mutual benefit.

Co-operative education was pioneered by the great Robert Owen, at New Lanark. His achievements offer both an example and an inspiration.

St Joseph’s campaign is about keeping our kids at the heart of our community and putting our community at the heart of our school.

(Andrew McFadyen is a parent at St Joseph’s Primary. Follow him on Twitter @apmcfadyen)

Related Posts

17 thoughts on “The democratic deficit in Scottish education

    1. Is every political question going to be looked at through the prism of what happened 25 years ago?

  1. Andrew, I respect and admire the campaign from the parents and the wider community to save St. Joseph’s Primary. They have used every means possible to raise the issue and have run a very effective campaign.

    I am open to improving educational outcomes for young people but this sounds very much like the Tories “Free Schools” idea of removing schools from local authority control.

    What is that you think this model will do to improve educational outcomes in Scotland and how does it differ from “Free Schools”?

    Also the Scottish Education system is a democratic institution. The Parliament legislates and devolved powers to local authorities who take local decisions to meet local needs. Where is the democratic deficit that you appear to be trying to overcome?

    1. Let me do my best to answer your questions Martin.

      First there is a democratic deficit. East Dunbartonshire Council’s own consultation found that 96 per cent of parents in Milngavie opposed merger. They pressed on regardless. Over 1,700 people signed our petition and hundreds joined protests. The response of one Milngavie councillor was to cancel his surgeries so that he did not have to meet voters. What’s democratic about that?

      One of the most inspiring aspects of the campaign to save the school has been the way that the whole community has rallied around and got involved. Why should this only happen when we are facing closure? It’s worth noting the success of Jordanhill, in Glasgow. By drawing on the talents of the whole community we can offer more to the kids.

      Have a look at our proposal document, which you can read here:

  2. Talk about opening up a can of worms! Even without the added complication of Catholic education, no Scottish education minister is going to pick a fight with any local authority over schools (I know this because I have been discussing the possibility of non-local authority governed Gaelic schools for years with civil servants and ministers). There is no political capital in this idea, for anyone. If you want your own school, start a fee-paying school. Surely in Milngavie and Bearsden you can afford it!

    1. Is that really your answer to Catholic families in Milngavie? If you want your children to be educated in their own community go private?

      1. I think it depends on how you define community. Whatever, if you don’t want LA control, fee-paying is the correct neoliberal response.

  3. Your piece doesn’t really explain enough of the background of why the decision is being taken to close the school. As Martin says, community engagement and parent being involved is great, but replicating the “Free Schools” idea adopted in England isn’t a model I’d want to see followed. If the headcount doesn’t justify a faith based school in your area, why should it be subsidised when many people disagree with the whole principle of faith based schools receiving any state funding or support?

    1. There are different arguments here. I respect the views of those who disagree with faith schools although I disagree with them. We should value diversity. St Joseph’s has around 140 pupils. Until the Council raised the possibility of closure it was the fastest growing school in East Dunbartonshire with a roll that had increased by 26 per cent in three years. There are some key differences with free schools. For example, we would oppose any form of academic selection.

      1. I think the aim should be to have the best possible education for pupils in terms of buildings, facilities and staff. Community engagement and diversity are great, but not at the expense of having too many small schools. How many other primary schools are there in the area for example? Are they larger or smaller? Would it be better to spend scarce resources having fewer schools that ALL pupils could go to irrespective of their parent’s faith?

        I remain unconvinced that the answer to the problem is creating Community Schools outside local democratic control. I confess that I see no justification for faith based schools having ANY state support, but can’t see why it shouldn’t be possible for all children to be educated together and taught about their own religion whilst attending the same institution.

        We don’t need faith based schools to protect diversity; seems to me there is a much stronger argument that they encourage division and reinforce sectarianism.

        1. I am going to repeat a point here. We should celebrate diversity. To accuse faith schools of encouraging division and reinforcing sectarianism is wrong. The ethos of Catholic education is caring and inclusive.

          1. Celebrating diversity doesn’t necessitate teaching children in separate institutions based on their faith background. The whole point of faith based schools is to prevent assimilation and promote the religion of the parents. If parents are determined for their children to be taught in such circumstances they should do so privately, not expect the state to subsidise it. Even then, such institutions should have to follow a national curriculum.

            I still see no real argument for maintaining Catholic, Jewish or Muslim schools (still less using public funds) which could not be answered by educating all children in the same schools, controlled by democratically elected local government, allowing for children to learn about their particular faith background (as well as other faiths) within that context.

            You don’t increase social cohesion and equality, and tackle religious fundamentalism and sectarianism, by continuing to educate your children in exclusive faith based schools.

  4. If we (the Scottish Labour Party) want to be really radical and forward think we should be repealing, out of date, legislation, that allows for denominational schools within the comprehensive education system. Religion could be part of a broad based curricula activity, if you want a specific religion go to church, synagogue, mosque etc. It would also save a bit money.

    1. That’s a view Charles. At least it’s honest. East Dunbartonshire Council argue that they are actually supporting Catholic education when they are closing Catholic schools.

Comments are closed.