Which hat is a politician wearing when they speak? Readers need context.

Jonathan Craig - MLA and chair of the board of governors of Laurelhill Community CollegeAn article in Wednesday’s Belfast Telegraph [not online] (that made it onto the front page by the evening edition) drew attention to the latest Education and Training Inspectorate report on Laurelhill Community College in Lisburn. Lindsay Fergus reported that:

A sixth secondary school in greater Belfast has been placed under special measures after being found to be inadequate by Government inspectors. Laurelhill Community College was criticised for “inadequate” standards achieved by key stage four pupils.

The percentage of pupils achieving five GCSEs at grade C and above was described as being “well below average”. It will now be asked to draw up an action plan for improvement under the Department of Education’s formal intervention process.

It will join 18 other schools in that process including five other in greater Belfast – Dunmurry High; Knockbreda High; Lisnagarvey High; Orangefield High and St Gemma’s High.

The article went on to quote “Lagan Valley MLA Jonathan Craig” who said

Questions need to be asked. How did SEELB and the department allow this situation to develop? What are they doing about it?

I accept there’s a challenge to improve results in these schools but neither the Department of Education nor the board will give any form of financial assistance for training.

There is also no additional financial support available for schools in formal intervention. The Department of Education is leaving these schools to sink.

A crucial fact was omitted from the article.

The context of Jonathan Craig’s comments is missing: he’s not just a local political representative. He’s also the chair of the board of governors of Laurelhill Community College, since at least 2007. (At the time of posting, the Lagan Valley MLA hadn’t replied to my email to ask precisely when he had become a governor and taken over as chair of the board of governors.)

It’s unfortunate that this context was overlooked. (To be clear, I’m not attributing blame for the missing fact.) Most politicians have a large variety of interests, and their biographies on the NI Assembly and party websites contain large lists of committees and boards. It’s important that relevant ones are declared by the press as well as the politician.

While the Department of Education and SEELB have questions to answer, so too perhaps has the school’s board of governors. Maybe Jonathan Craig’s words should be adapted: Questions need to be asked. How did the governors and the senior staff allow this situation to develop?

I do note that a section of the report which is titled “the quality of the leadership and the management are inadequate” mentions an eight year long “unsettled period” which “led to strained working relationships” and difficulties in evaluating progress/setting benchmarks in the “interim School Development Plan. However, it does speak positively about the governors: “The board of governors has been recently reconstituted. The governors are well informed about the school’s position and are involved actively and appropriately in decisions regarding the future strategic direction and development of the school.”

In a follow-up post I’ll quickly look at the GCSE performance of the school and reflect on the years 12 and 14 statistics released last month by the Department of Education.

Photo from Lagan Valley DUP blog

Update – in late January, the Belfast Telegraph’s Readers’ Editor responded about this issue:

I looked into the matter you raised – namely that we omitted to tell the readers that Mr Craig was also a governor of the school at the centre of our report.

The information was definitely not withheld from us and we were not misled.

The situation is that we were aware of Mr Craig’s position but our correspondent took the position she was interviewing him in his capacity as an MLA in whose area six schools are in formal intervention.

My position is that the governorship was directly relevant to the story and should have been mentioned. This has been accepted.

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  • michael-mcivor

    ” What hat is a politician wearing when they speak ”

    Is there a hat big enough to cover any brass necks-

  • Drumlins Rock

    Clearly in this situation the role of Chairman trumps his MLA position and there is a clear vested interest, not financial but to his reputation, which is actually worth more to a politician, I hope any press release made clear what his role in the school is and it is the press who missed it. It is understandable the various roles become blurred at times, and if he had of been a parent or past pupil it would have been a non issue, even an ordinary govenor is not a major issue, but the Chairmans role should most definately have been made clear.

  • Chris Donnelly

    even an ordinary govenor (sic) is not a major issue

    That is patent nonsense.

    As a school governor, he would have been expected to take his role seriously, including holding the school principal to account for the day to day administration of the school and for the trend in examination performance.

    The DUP MLA complains about a lack of money for training,blames the Department and SEELB but fails to attribute blame primarily where it lies- at the school’s own authorities, including the Board of Governors.

    I do agree that it is unfair to compare the non-grammar schools with grammars, and hence the importance of the FSM bands for providing a comparative context for school performance.

    In the longer term, I would like to see a differing pay scale set up to incentivise high quality school leaders and teaching specialists to seek employment in schools which often fail to attract such teachers, who (like people in all occupations) will opt for the easier life of working in a school with less behavioural problems and fewer pupils with learning difficulties when given the chance.

  • Chris – governors would certainly be briefed on school results, get sign off the action plans for school development and management, and have a strong role as critical friends to ensure their school was facing up its individual strengths and weaknesses.

  • plainly speaking

    The accompanying picture provides plenty of relevant context, in particular, why Craig and his fellow governors at the time, had neither the courage or foresight to replace the former Principal (pictured alongside Craig) in a more timely manner. Their lack of urgency left the college without effective leadership for an extended period.

    The policy document ‘Every School A Good School’ addresses the critical role governors have in maintaining effective leadership within the school: “Governors understand their responsibilities and provide clear strategic direction as well as support and challenge to the Principal in carrying forward the process of improvement”.

    Craig’s comments look more like an attempt to deflect part of the blame.