Members of a Scottish Government advisory group on education have enjoyed five-star luxury at an exclusive Edinburgh hotel and racked up thousands of pounds in air fares, prompting accusations they are just “an expensive dining club”.

An investigation published by The Ferret in tandem with analysis on Sceptical Scot has revealed how experts on the International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA) ran up a £36,000 bill for its first meeting last year.

Social media also shows that leading ICEA members, who are due to meet again in Edinburgh on 27-28 February, have a friendly and admiring relationship with ministers.

Formed in 2016, the ICEA brings together a team of nine academics and one business leader, with the intention of advising the Scottish government on “how best to achieve excellence and equity in our Scottish education system.”

However, information made available after a series of freedom of information (FoI) requests reveals comparatively high costs and, in some cases, an apparently warm relationship between the influential academics and leading politicians.

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The total cost of the group’s first two-day meeting, held on 31 August – 1 September last year, ran to £36,586. The Scottish Government website provides a simple breakdown of this total, showing that £26,620 on flights, £8,428 on accommodation and £1,538 on hospitality.

The Ferret and Sceptical Scot can now reveal that ICEA members were accommodated in Edinburgh’s exclusive Sheraton Hotel – one of the most expensive in the city – at a cost of £240 per person per night. Six of the council members (including two who are based in Scotland) were put up for three nights, while one enjoyed four nights of accommodation and a further two were able to stay for five nights.

A civil servant was also stationed at the hotel for three nights, a move which required a substantial breach of the usual ceiling on officials’ overnight costs.

These accommodation costs are several times that of the Council of Economic Advisers, a group of comparable size and scope which also met for two days in August last year. Accommodation costs for this meeting were just £2,432.

Asked specifically why the Sheraton Hotel was chosen, the government stated that this was considered to be “the best accommodation option available, based on the number of guests and dates.”

The government also defended the decision to place a civil servant at the hotel for three nights: “It was important, as lead secretariat to the council, for this official to be based at the same hotel to meet and brief council members over the course of the meeting and to be available to them as required.”

FoI disclosures have also confirmed that the cost of covering members’ flights varies significantly, with figures ranging from £1,085 for Pasi Sahlberg to £6,447 for Andy Hargreaves adding up to a total of £26,620. The Scottish Government has advised that it did not pay for any first class seats, but did not disclose further flight details.

In addition to information on the costs of the first ICEA meeting, further investigations have revealed an apparently warm relationship between a few members and some Scottish Government ministers. Opposition politicians have raised concerns that this could compromise the council’s role in interrogating government policy.

Prof Hargreaves and Dr Carol Campbell, in particular, have repeatedly praised Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and the former education secretary Michael Russell both in person and online.

Receiving the Scottish Government’s Robert Owen Award in September 2016, Prof Hargreaves tweeted that “this means a lot from such an extraordinary leader”. At a lecture at London’s Royal Society of Arts in January 2016 he referred to Sturgeon as “the awesome First Minister of Scotland.”

Responding on Twitter to congratulations from Russell on his appointment to the council Hargreaves says: “Building on your important legacy in education, Mike”. Dr Campbell and Prof Harris ‘like’ this, and Campbell then echoes the comment. Dr Campbell also tweeted that she was “thrilled to meet @nicolasturgeon and @johnswinney” while taking a photograph with them during the ICEA’s first meeting.

The online interaction between these two academics and the highest level of the Scottish Government are not restricted to education policy, extending to messages about planned walking trips, jokes about a Proclaimers concert and praise for the baby box initiative.

Iain Gray MSP, Scottish Labour education spokesperson said: “Ministers listening to expert advice on education is a good thing.

“However this must not turn out to be just an expensive dining club with little impact on policy, like Alex Salmond’s Council of Economic Advisers. The accommodation bill for one of the capital’s most luxurious hotels will stun taxpayers.

“Even more worrying is evidence that key members of the council are close to SNP ministers, raising questions about their independence.  Some advisers seem to have been taking souvenir selfies with Nicola Sturgeon.

“They are supposed to be interrogating and providing a critique of government education policy, not giving John Swinney cover for misguided “reforms” while cutting education budgets.

“If government and advisers wish to show they are a serious attempt to build education policy on international evidence, and not an expensive fan club, then they should considering holding meetings in public.”

Liz Smith MSP, Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman said: “For ten years, the SNP Government has failed to act on Scotland’s declining education standards. Now we learn that the latest talking shop they have devised is costing taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds – and to what end?

“Of course, getting expert advice is always important for government, but there are plenty of independent experts available in Scotland who don’t need a £6000 flight to get here.

“The problem is that they might challenge SNP policy – something we know is outlawed within Nicola Sturgeon’s inner circle.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Members of the ICEA are experts in their field and are giving their time to improve Scottish education for no payment, with only their expenses covered.

“The Scottish Government takes value for money very seriously when making transport and travel arrangements, and we have published the costs associated with the ICEA on our website.

“The Scottish Government’s International Council of Education Advisers comprises some of the most highly respected experts in education practice in the world with a breadth of experience particularly relevant to the Scottish system.

“They have studied and advised countries and educators across the world and between them have expertise in significant areas of education including teacher professionalism, school leadership, parental engagement, literacy and equity.

“We are pleased and privileged to have their commitment to and advice on our ambitions to make Scottish education world class.”

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An analysis has also been published on Sceptical Scot

Additional research by Lucy Hunter Blackburn.