Watchdog clears education chief in school closures row

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EDUCATION leader Marilyne MacLaren has been formally cleared by Scotland's public sector watchdog – but rapped for making "an error of judgement" over the school closure leak affair.

An investigation by the Standards Commission found that Cllr MacLaren had acted hastily on evidence based "on suspicion" instead of factual evidence when, last April, she banned a parent representative from the forum looking at school closures.

Cllr MacLaren had falsely accused Lynda Flex of passing information to the Evening News following a story which revealed the first schools to face the council's closure list.

She was later ordered to apologise to Mrs Flex by council chief executive Tom Aitchison and an investigation was mounted by the commission into whether she had broken the councillors' code of conduct. Chief investigating officer Stuart Allan has now ruled that the education leader had acted "in good faith". But he said Cllr MacLaren had based her judgement on unreliable information and did not in fact have the "incontrovertible proof" from two different sources that she claimed to have when she kicked Mrs Flex off the forum last April.

Mr Allan also suggested that the outcome could have been a lot different had Cllr MacLaren spoken to Mrs Flex about her accusations first, or consulted other members of the forum, including director of education Gillian Tee.

He ruled: "Fundamentally, she did not have proof that (Mrs Flex] had leaked the names of the schools. In addition, she took action without consulting other members of the forum which would not only have been good practice but would have ensured that the decision regarding the complainant would have been a corporate decision rather than a personal one."

Mr Allan concluded: "While the respondent made an error of judgement, such action does not necessarily constitute a breach of the code, especially where, as in this case, there was no evidence that the respondent had acted out of bad faith towards the complainant but rather in good faith out of a sense of duty to parents of the schools involved."

Cllr MacLaren said she was "pleased" the Standards Commission had cleared her name.

She added: "I have apologised to Lynda Flex and given her the opportunity to rejoin the forum.

"School closures are always a sensitive and difficult issue and my actions were undertaken with the best of motives, to try to minimise distress for the school communities involved."

The Standards Commission investigation also acknowledges that Cllr MacLaren is willing to offer Mrs Flex a public apology at a meeting of the full council.

Craigentinny and Duddingston councillor Ewan Aitken, who is Mrs Flex's local councillor, said he expected that to happen.

He said: "I know that my constituent Lynda Flex is deeply concerned that this is not a true reflection of what happened. She still awaits an unequivocal apology."

Council leader Jenny Dawe said she was "always confident" that Cllr MacLaren had acted in what she considered to be the "best interests of our schools and the forum".

Mrs Flex said: "All I have ever wanted was an apology and I am very pleased that will be forthcoming in the chamber."