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Why has it all gone so badly wrong for PKC?

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With a school closed-down at their command and with the friendly support of both regulators and the Scottish Government, it should all have been plain sailing for PKC and the education officers who had failed so badly over a number of years to make inclusion work and stem the flow of prospective pupils to TNS. Cost pressures off, no more tribunals to fight, and many scores of pupil can now be left to sit at home rather than drain council budgets.

However, things have not turned-out at they had anticipated, and their own performance is now under the spotlight with not one of the 13 children and young people displaced by the closure currently attending school on a full-time basis after over four months in the educational wilderness.

It all appears to boil down to professional competence and trust.

Firstly, the rather feeble explanation that the Governors chose to close the school for financial reasons was regarded from the outset as about as credible as a Donald Trump tweet. It took a matter of hours for parents to realise that the fees for the term were already in the bank and that by closing in 5 days, the school would occur additional costs of over £140,000 in refunds to local authorities. It made no financial sense, whatever pressures there may have been on the school at the time.

Nobody, but nobody believes the lies that were spread by PKC and the regulators that there were, “serious child protection concerns” at the school and the deafening silence that has followed requests for actual evidence to show this, demonstrates how poorly judged this tactic was as a smokescreen for the brutal plan that had been enacted over a number of months.

Every lie and every dishonest statement that was issued then destroyed what little trust may have remained for parents who had often battled for months and years to secure a decent education for their children. It was no more than they were entitled to, but they were made to feel like traitors for wanting what was laid down in law, and what has eluded them since. Many had fought tribunals and witnessed first-hand how dishonest the authority can be when it comes to saving money and protecting budgets that are under pressure because the wrong people occupy key positions within the education department and simply cannot do the jobs for which they are paid handsomely. And every tribunal that the authority fought, was lost. So, desperation set in and the closure plan was devised.

The final four days of term illustrated how poor PKC officers are at assessing and meeting pupil needs. All key decisions during that time were made by them and their colleagues at the Care Inspectorate and Education Scotland, and through their actions they were highly successful at converting overnight a safe, warm and friendly school into a bleak and soulless institution. “Cruel”, “sick”, and “distressing” were some of the words used by staff and parents to describe the atmosphere during that shameful week.

Then more lies followed. Parents were told that the new provision, heavily subsidised by the Scottish Government, would be a great success and that, “six TNS pupils have signed-up already”. There were none.

Educational targets were changed to down-play academic potential and thus make it easier for a third-rate provision to appear acceptable in place of what had been on offer at TNS.

As of today, only one TNS pupil is attending Forteviout and then only on a temporary basis until the new service begins on the site of the old school.

So why has the new provision failed? And expensively so?

An obvious explanation is that the senior officers at PKC simply failed to understand pupil needs and completely mis-judged what TNS was doing so successfully. This appears to align with the views of school managers who noted a long list of PKC failures over a number of years and most disturbingly in the refusal to grant funding for a vulnerable young man who took his own life three days after being told that his placement would not continue. And when word gets around that an educational psychologist demands of a bright autistic boy that he, “look her in the eyes” when meeting to discuss his future, it becomes clear that PKC is 30 years behind the times and saddled with expensive ‘professionals’ (the term is used loosely) ill-equipped to make inclusion work.

The average attendance at TNS of those displaced by the closure was over 90%. Under PKC control, that now stands at close to 0%. This is the hard data so hated by council officers but so useful to those who wish to make sense of how inclusion is working across the authority.

Mental health has been destroyed, fragile social networks lost, and attainment, the current holy grail of the Scottish education system, has been annihilated.

But the strongest impression of what has followed closure is not that of professional incompetence and dishonesty, but the complete absence of anything that remotely resembles leadership. No-one took charge, gained the trust of parents, and accepted responsibility for the bright new future that education officers attempted to promise through their clenched teeth. There was, and is, a vacuum at the top, with everyone dedicated to finding reasons to blame the parents or former staff for their own failures, rather than identifying solutions and instilling confidence in the families involved.

Leadership is not just about generating and implementing plans, but about setting standards and asserting authority by earning respect rather than exercising power. Those leaders do not appear to exist in PKC. As one parent put it in her filmed interview, “There is no-one you can trust. They all lie”.

Of course, we must not discount the impact of the threat that now hangs over PKC with demands reaching fever-pitch for a full independent investigation into the whole debacle. That is surely focussing minds. Never have the words, “We would welcome an investigation” sounded so hollow.

So, nearly five months on, and not one PKC pupil has a full-time permanent school place. The authority’s response to the closure of the school had been an abject failure in all but one respect. It has demonstrated superbly why TNS was necessary and why their long campaign against the school was so cruel and misguided. For a whole host of reasons, PKC cannot meet pupil needs and that is now plain for everyone to see.

At least something is clear in this whole sordid affair.

Bill Colley