On billionaires, taxpayer money and private schools | Blog

Jim McColl is a billionaire, which is the word we use to describe people who hoard vast amounts of wealth to the detriment of the rest of society. His ‘fortune’ was recently estimated at around £1.07 billion, meaning that if he spent £250’000 (roughly ten times the Scottish annual salary) each year, it would take him more than 4000 years to empty his bank account.

On top of this, and despite being part of the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers, McColl no longer lives in Scotland – at least not officially. Instead, he chooses to reside in Monaco, and while I’m sure he’s very fond of the food, weather and fast cars – who wouldn’t be? – I suspect that there might also be some other factors attracting him to live in the world’s most up-market tax haven.

It is, therefore, rather galling to see McColl attack others for the closure of Newlands Junior College (NJC), a move affecting around 25 current students who will now, hopefully, be reintegrated into schools or colleges in the city.

Set up five years ago in Glasgow’s south side, the venture emphasised vocational educational for a small annual cohort of students who had been disengaged from mainstream education. It may have been called a Junior College but it was, in reality, a private school.

Supporters of NJC – from Keir Bloomer to Liz Smith to McColl himself – would have us believe that it has been a roaring success and that the state should now ride to the rescue, but in reality it is just another example of why vanity projects from well-heeled ‘philanthropists’ are never going to be the answer to challenges in education.

Has NJC achieved anything that a college or school given the same resources (funding, cohort size, contacts) could not? It seems unlikely.

Indeed, Alan Sherry – the Principal of Glasgow Kelvin College, responded to a tweet about my writing this column with the following suggestion: “Perhaps you could say that Glasgow Kelvin and Glasgow Clyde colleges already make comprehensive and much larger provision for the same cohort.” He added: “Then suggest the SG gives the money to us to do even more.”

According to The Times, McColl and a number of other “private backers” apparently “contributed £4m to the total £5m cost of the project”, with the Scottish Government handing over more than a million pounds for the scheme and Glasgow City Council providing a further £100’000 a year. They have now, rightly, decided that enough is enough.

If McColl wishes to run a no-fees private school then that is his business, but he should – and quite clearly could – pay for it himself rather than expecting the rest of us to cough up. If, however, he is committed to enhancing the provision of education for all young people, then the solution is even more straightforward: he should start by paying full taxes in Scotland.

ScotGov refuse to release Prince Charles lobbying letters | The Guardian

First published on August 14, 2017 by The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/aug/14/scottish-ministers-refuse-to-make-public-prince-charless-lobbying-letters-teacher-training-rules-scotland (shared byline with Severin Carrell)

Prince’s office supported proposals from charity that could financially benefit from changes to Scotland’s teacher training rules

The Scottish government is refusing to release correspondence showing the Prince of Wales lobbied ministers to loosen up strict rules on teacher training for a charity that stands to earn money from the changes.

Ministers have rejected three requests to publish letters and documents from Prince Charles’s office supporting proposals from Teach First, a charity he helped set up 15 years ago, to introduce fast-track teacher training in Scotland.

It comes at a time when the Scottish government is on the brink of announcing a £1m scheme to accelerate training in Scotland amid a shortage of suitable graduates, allowing new providers to enter the market.

Teach First said it has expressed its interest in bidding for the new contract to supply teachers in Scotland, and would earn a fee for every person it recruits if it wins. In England, where the charity has recruited more than 10,000 teachers for state schools and academies, it earns £2,600 for each trainee.

Prince Charles has served as Teach First’s patron since it was founded in 2002 with the aim of recruiting teachers for inner city schools that struggle to find teachers. It fast-tracks university graduates through a six-week training course, who then continue training in the classroom.

A handful of the prince’s “black spider” handwritten letters, written to UK ministers in 2004 and 2005, were released after the Guardian won a 10-year legal battle to have them disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act. But the law in England and Wales on the disclosure of royal correspondence has since been tightened substantially, meaning they no longer have to be made public.

Scottish ministers have said the Scotland’s FoI rules on royal correspondence remain more open than the rest of the UK, and were not tightened after the black spider memo case. But civil rights activists say that claim is undermined by the Scottish government’s decision in this case.

Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said there was a clear conflict of interest if the prince was lobbying on behalf of a charity he patronised and which would gain financially from that lobbying.

“There is a powerful case for access to his advocacy correspondence, full stop,” Frankel said. “We’re talking about a specific policy which it turns out will financially benefit the organisation about which he is expressing those views. That says ‘conflict of interest’ in very large letters.”

An investigation by the Guardian shows the Scottish government was first lobbied by the prince in April 2012. That same day Teach First also sent the then Scottish education secretary, Mike Russell, a briefing advocating significant changes to Scotland’s teacher training system.

Russell attended a Teach First reception at Holyrood four weeks later, according to Scottish government records that are publicly available. He instructed his officials to keep in contact with the charity while they talked to the General Teaching Council Scotland about its proposals. One document notes Russell “would like to be kept closely informed of developments”, although progress was slowed by the independence referendum in 2014.

The issue of changes to teaching in Scotland is a highly charged one. Although the English and Welsh systems have been deregulated, the Scottish profession is highly protective of its state education system and the strict rules governing teacher training.

Scottish secondary school teachers must have a university degree in the specialist subject they teach and a one-year graduate diploma taught at a university. Teach First has proposed instead a five-week summer course before its Scottish trainees are placed in the classroom, similar to its English and Welsh model.

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said: “The pattern of communication with Teach First directly and with the Prince of Wales on their behalf can only raise questions of policy being made as a result of pressure, and these concerns must be dispelled or otherwise by disclosure of the correspondence.”

The official records show Teach First kept lobbying the Scottish government. Civil servants have redacted further correspondence and briefing papers from 2012, 2013 and 2014 on the grounds they relate to the Prince of Wales. One of those is a letter from Russell to Teach First; another is a Scottish government briefing pack on the charity.

Even though Scottish ministers insist they weigh up the public interest very carefully when it comes to correspondence from the royal household, in this case they have applied a unique exemption under section 41(a) in the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, on all documents mentioning the Prince of Wales.

Two requests were made to the Scottish government to release the correspondence under the act, followed up by a media request from the Guardian to make them public. But the Scottish government said it had applied the royal exemption because the material related to “communications with HRH the Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay”.

Officials at Clarence House in London also refused to release the material voluntarily, and refused to comment. The prince’s officials are sticking to their policy not to release correspondence from him which they say is private, and refuse to deny that the letters came from his private office. Teach First referred inquiries about his role to Clarence House.

A Scottish government spokesman said: “The primary aim of the development of new routes into teaching is to broaden the range of people entering the teaching profession, not fast-tracking the qualification of new teachers.

“Any new route into teaching must be accredited by the General Teaching Council for Scotland and will require a partnership with a university.”

Swinney in secret talks with education lobbyists | Daily Record

An edited and shortened version of this article was published on 7th February, 2017. The following article is the original, full text.

Full details of meetings between the Scottish Government and Teach First are available here.

Secretive meetings between the Scottish Government and a controversial lobbying organisation have provoked calls for reform.

On 25 October last year John Swinney – the Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary – met with representatives of the Hometown Foundation, a group pressing the government to allow the creation of ‘autonomous schools’. Like Free Schools in England, these would be publicly funded but exempt from local authority control.

Freedom of Information requests – which allow the public to access important information held by the government and other public bodies – have revealed that no minutes were taken during the meeting in October last year, despite the conversation being directly relevant to the Scottish Government’s school governance review, which was still ongoing at the time. In an earlier letter to the Hometown Foundation, Swinney had also advised that ‘autonomous schools’ proposals were to be considered as part of his review of the Scottish education system.

Information released under FOI laws also revealed that Colin McAllister, John Swinney’s Head of Policy and Senior Special Adviser, held a further meeting with the Hometown Foundation on 21 November. Again, no minutes of the meeting exist.

A follow-up letter – also available thanks to FOI requests – from the Hometown Foundation to John Swinney suggests that their representative, Bill Nicol, was told by McAllister that no decision on ‘autonomous schools’ would be made before the conclusion of the government’s schools review.

The Scottish Government has been repeatedly criticised for its inconsistent approach to keeping records of important or controversial meetings.

In August 2016 it was revealed that a meeting between the government and an EU commissioner, which related to serious delays in payments to Scottish farmers, had not been minuted. Weeks later, it was reported that the failure to keep minutes of a meeting between John Swinney and fracking giant Ineos meant that details of their conversation could not be revealed to the public.

In 2015, the Scottish Government was forced to admit that an entire series of meetings which led to the introduction of standardised testing in schools had gone unminuted.

Carole Ewart, Convener of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, sharply criticised the failure to keep minutes of meetings and called for a review of the state of FOI in Scotland. She said:

“Access to information is a human right and the Scottish Government must ensure its actions pro-actively comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Proof of secret meetings with lobbyists provides further justification for the Scottish Parliament to undertake an inquiry into the operation of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act which was passed 15 years ago and became effective 12 years ago. The Parliament should also assess whether the investigatory powers of the Scottish Information Commissioner should be enhanced to prevent and punish those who would seek to adopt new practices which have the effect of reducing the effectiveness of the public’s right to know.

FOISA was supposed to stop, punish and prevent such actions.”

Scottish Labour MSP Neil Findlay, an outspoken critic of lobbying in the Scottish parliament, added:

“Once again the Scottish Government are caught out meeting lobbyists without recording what was discussed. It really does look like the Scottish Government are seeking ways to systematically evade FOI legislation by simply not recording information or writing minutes of potentially important meetings like this one, which sees lobbyists advocating free schools and minimising the role of local authorities in education, a direction of travel that concerningly Mr Swinney already knows too well.

It is also worrying that they think it is acceptable to consistently disregard the spirit of FOI and avoid sharing information with the public and in the process wilfully and regularly showing disdain for the founding principles of openness, transparency and accountability which the Scottish Parliament was built upon.”

When asked to explain details of the decision not to minute meetings with the Hometown Foundation the Scottish Government stated that they would be unable to respond in time and suggested submitting a Freedom of Information request.

A government spokesperson also said: “There is no requirement for minutes to be taken at all Scottish Government meetings, particularly at informal meetings.  This is entirely in line with normal practice across the UK Civil Service.”