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Calls for probe over cost of Highland Council education chief

By Scott Maclennan

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Paul Senior, whose role at Highland Council comes to an end this month as schools go back.
Paul Senior, whose role at Highland Council comes to an end this month as schools go back.

THE departure of Highland Council’s education chief Paul Senior has led to calls for a probe into the whole affair by leading councillors who fear there could now be a “cover-up”.

Mr Senior joined the council in late May on an interim basis for 12 months with a contract worth £936 a day, the equivalent of around £244,000 for a year.

At the time, the local authority was concerned it faced a budget gap of up to £97 million due to the impact of coronavirus.

It emerged that the job offer was made by just chief executive Donna Manson and the education committee chairman, Councillor John Finalyson, due to having a reduced appointment panel because of the lockdown.

Now questions are being asked about the justification of agreeing to such a high wage and the timing of the departure, with schools due to be back next week.

Councillor Andrew Baxter (Fort William and Ardnamurchan) believes not just Mr Senior should be out of a job but others too. He said: “This appointment was made in a blaze of publicity trumpeting how education would be transformed as a result.

“After all, parents and teachers were told this would help make Highland one of the best places in Scotland for children and young people to learn and develop.

“That was a tall order even for a one-year appointment – it certainly isn’t possible in just three months. Now they [Highland Council] claim it was only meant to be temporary to get our kids back to school after the virus lockdown.

“Everything began unravelling when councillors started asking questions about the secret recruitment process and the costs to the council. Then we saw the failure to answer councillors’ questions at public committees or not bothering to attend at all.

"I think the timing of the announcement to councillors – in an email late at night – was deliberate to avoid any more questions being asked at a council meeting.

“The leadership have serious questions that they must not be allowed to dodge. In any other organisation there would be resignations – in Highland Council we will just see a cover-up.”

Councillor Andrew Jarvie (Inverness South) agreed, saying that a lot remains to be explained: “This departure leaves myriad questions – both in why this council continues to haemorrhage its most senior staff and why our education chief is departing at such a critical time. I do not buy that the timing of him leaving was organised.

“As soon as this broke, I got a call from someone who was scheduling a meeting with him at the time which he is now leaving. I doubt he would arrange to meet someone when he was planning to leave, so this appears to be a very recent decision for him.

“We urgently need an independent review into education in the Highlands, because the water is so murky. There is too much secrecy and it’s not good enough that councillors only learn things months after the fact.”

A council spokeswoman said: “Paul Senior’s role will come to an end in August. The main focus of his work has been planning for the return of education and we are pleased that these plans can now be put into action to safely return children and staff to school in August.

“Mr Senior will be seeing that those plans are implemented and arrangements will be put in place for an interim executive chief officer to lead education until a permanent appointment can be made.”

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