EDUCATION chiefs in the Scottish capital are sending headteachers on a £1,250 per person four-day retreat on the banks of Loch Lomond – despite significant cutbacks to the city schools budget.
Edinburgh City Council has already put 32 school leaders through the residential course this year, at a cost of around £40,000, and said it is evaluating whether a further 104 may benefit from the course with charity Columba 1400.
Leadership-strenthening classes are held on the picturesque Ardoch Estate and are said to allow teachers to reflect on creativity, integrity and the value of relationships.
Council chiefs have insisted that the pilot was worthwhile but added that no decision has yet been taken on the remaining staff attending.
Critics have, however, questioned the necessity of the move – expected to cost up to £130,000 if all personnel were sent – at a time when the local authority is looking to cut about £16 million from schools and children’s services between now and 2017-18.
Iain Whyte, finance spokesman for the Conservative opposition on the council, said: “This sounds like a very expensive way to enhance leadership in our headteachers and there must be better ways to do this – both in Edinburgh and at a lower cost.
“Apart from anything, some of our headteachers will already have strong leadership qualities and would not benefit from a blanket approach carrying significant costs.”
The Columba 2014 retreat is similar to a scheme run on the Isle of Skye that ended several years ago after funding from central government was withdrawn.
Derek Curran, headteacher at Castlebrae Community High in Craigmillar, one of the city’s most deprived areas, said he had attended leadership courses in England, which prepare school leaders for dealing with challenging environments.
He told The Scotsman: “I’ve been on a great many leadership courses over the years and the bulk of these do have a positive effect.
“The best of these courses, from my experience, set you time-based challenges and you have to demonstrate leadership and bring your skill set to a crisis situation.
“Although I can’t speak for this course as I haven’t attended it, previous ones have matched heads with executives from big companies like BT and often there are clear parallels to the sort of challenges we may face running a school.”
Maggie Cunningham, from Columba 1400, insisted that the leadership courses are worthwhile despite the cost.
She said: “It’s easy to say this is a headteachers’ jolly, but it’s absolutely not. If you take the arguments about shrinking budgets… we are actually helping heads to think creatively about how to use your resources in challenging times.”
Professor Walter Humes, a leading academic from Stirling University’s School of Education, however, said he was unconvinced and had “reservations” about such courses.
He said: “I have no doubt that the experience is personally fulfilling for those who take part. What I think is unproven is that the experience has measurable benefits for the running of schools once course members have returned. In the present economic climate, the cost seems hard to justify.
“There has been a huge amount of hype about leadership, much of it inflated and some of it designed to pass responsibility but not power from policymakers to front-line teaching staff.”
A council spokesman said: “The council is committed to providing high-quality leadership development programmes for headteachers because effective leadership is critical to improving attainment and achievement levels within schools.”