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The Witherslack betrayal

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We interrogated the former Head of School about the involvement of Witherslack.

In September 2018, the Witherslack Group were managing the school ahead of a full take-over planned for January 2019.

“The future of the school looked financially secure but I had concerns and stated to colleagues that only high level political interference could now stand in our/their way” (Bill Colley, fomer Head).

Ambitious plans were being formed to invest heavily in the school with increased staffing, new buildings and infrastructure, a brand new internet connection to serve not only the school but the village, and a new name (‘Deuchary Hill School’), branding and marketing. A modern IT system was due to be installed over the October break, and staff were collaborating with WG staff and external consultants to further develop the new curriculum which had been introduced in August.

In mid-September, the school advertised for a new science teacher and a support assistant and was processing applications when the Head of School decided to delay appointments.

“Something told me that things were not right. I knew at this stage that WG would be liaising with the Care Inspectorate and Perth & Kinross Council over the registration of the new school and suspected that obstacles were being put in their way. Emails were not being answered and the excellent relationship I had with the directors suddenly went dead”.

On return from the October break, staff discovered that the new IT system had not materialised.

Five days later, school managers discovered that a complaint made by a member of staff who was being considered for dismissal was being treated by the Care Inspectorate not as a concern about the working practice of her colleagues but as child protection matter. (2 investigations have demonstrated that they were wrong and incompetent in their decision making).

One week later, a local child protection investigation had concluded that school managers had been correct in their actions and that there were no child protection issues, but as this news was being digested, the Care Inspectorate stated that suspended members of staff were not alllowed to return to work (this was illegal as the CI do not have powers to interfere with staffing), and that an improvement notice would be issued. The Scottish Ministers also imposed conditions on the school and the Registrar of Independent Schools wrote to the Chairman of Governors stating that there appeared to have been, “another failing at the school to follow child protection procedures” (a comment that she has since been unable to justify).

In his final conversation with the WG directors, they told the Head that they were now, “very scared”.

Following CI demands for yet another investigation into two incidents mentioned in the staff letter, and which had already be shown not to have happened, the Board decided to appoint WG to undertake an ‘independent investigation’.

“I warned them against this because I knew that WG were on the point of pulling-out and could use this to fake concerns about the school. They had raised no issues prior to this despite repeated questionning by myself and the Head of Care and genuinely seeemd impressed by the skills of the staff and quality of care, but I wrote to my business manager predicting what eventually followed; i.e. that Witherslack would now turn against the school” (See below)

The Head of School was then suspended. Although later cleared of any wrongdoing, the suspension was seen as a tactic to ‘get him out of the way’ so that critical decisions could be made about the school without proper scrutiny.

“The WG staff who had been working alongside us were pretty decent people. They were shocked by my suspension and certainly had no major concerns about child protection or safeguarding or they would have said so”.

Howard Tennant, director of the WG, then submitted a scathing ‘report’ which contradicted all previous inspection findings by CI and Education Scotland, and their own statements about the school over the previous 3 months, and which stated that the school should be, “closed immediately”.

School managers were not permitted to see the report until the final board meeting at which the decision was taken to close the school (within 5 days). The Board claimed that they did not have the expertise to challenge the findings which have been described by the Head as, “absurd, based on errors and misunderstandings, poorly written, and clearly designed to damage the school and school staff without providing them with an opportunity to respond.”

“If the Tennant report is in any way accurate, it means that the WG personnel who had been present at the school for some time were professionally negligent in not raising concerns or reporting these to the regulators. It suggests that WG are incompetent as an organisation and especially in matters concerning child protection and safeguarding.”

Colley explained that, “what the Witherslack directors did to the school was unforgiveable. They destroyed a 26 year-old service that was meeting the needs of pupils who could not be educated elsewhere. They destroyed the professional reputations of highly skilled and dedicated members of staff, and they ruined the lives not only of the 24 families and 50 members of staff affected by the closure, but the countless children and young people across Scotland who will never be able to access education because TNS was erased from the educational landscape by their actions.”

Serious questions must now be asked about the conduct not only of the Witherslack Group, but the Board of Governors. Only a full independent investigation at national level with the powers to compel the organisations and individuals involved in the closure to explain their actions will suffice.

Why did Witherslack betray the school? Our thoughts:

  1. They were told by the Care Inspectorate that their new service would not be registered (this is what PKC and their friends in the CI wanted)

  2. They realised that they could not fight against PKC and the regulatory authorities which wanted to close the school under a cloud of ‘safeguarding concerns’ to obscure their own role in the suicide of a young man in February 2017

  3. They realised that their business plan would not work. The school had been very successful in expanding numbers but each new pupil reduced the revenue that they would be able to generate from their much higher fee levels

Meanwhile, former staff and parents continue to fight for justice. TNS is dead and the harm done can never be repaired, but what we can do is make every effort to ensure that corruption of this nature is never allowed to happen again in order to protect other independent schools and the families they serve.

The Head of School wrote the following to his business manager, before WG were commissioned to report on safeguarding in the school:

“Whilst all of this has been going on, and in previous weeks, I received very little communication from WG despite updating them on developments and that had begun to arouse some suspicions that they were getting cold feet as their negotiations with the Care Inspectorate regarding registration, were, or were not, progressing.

My interpretation of all of this is that safeguarding has become an excuse to withdraw from the deal now that they have seen how the Care Inspectorate and P&K have been trying to bring the school down over the last year, and how difficult it would be to resist this no matter how good the school might be. As Jude Jones told me on Friday 2nd November, “we are very scared”.

The Board and Witherslack now face the prospect of huge reputational damage when, as seems inevitable, the school is forced to close. The Directors will face criticism from their investors if there is any criticism of their failure to understand how malevolent P&K and the regulatory authorities have been towards the school, and that this has not been taken into account during the decision-making process.

I fear they will now turn on me, and possibly Angie as convenient scapegoats. I hope that, for once, I am proved wrong, and we have nothing to fear if the truth is ever allowed to come out, but recent experience has taught me that integrity for some only runs skin deep, and that when faced with situations like this, even decent people will try to deflect the blame.

Ironically, I have for some time been trying to devise an exit plan for myself. WG had insisted that their takeover of the school was dependent on my commitment to stay on as Head – in fact it was their first stipulation and came before any other negotiations. So, I had reluctantly resigned myself to several more months at the school until the takeover process had been completed. I have offered to step aside on numerous occasions, the last of which was on Friday 2nd November. I received no response from Jude Jones to that message. Andrew has informed me on several occasions that, without my input, the school would have closed in June. His response on 3rd November was that I was needed at the school and that I had his full support.

I suspect that the main criticism that will be levelled at me was that I did not communicate information about the CP investigation to the Board as soon as I had heard about it (4.45pm on Friday 26th October) but in my defence would argue that;

1. I informed WG on that Friday that there would be a meeting on the following Tuesday to determine if a full CP investigation was necessary

2. I expected that no investigation would take place because Ms Anon had not raised a CP issue (confirmed by DS Lee after interviewing her) and that the matter would be closed immediately

3. I have had to operate with 2 sets of line management and no clear communication protocol to determine to whom I am answerable, time-scales etc

4. I had been informed by Jude Jones that I should not be raising matters with the Board because WG were now responsible for the school. You may recall that they did not want the meeting of the Education and Care Committee to go ahead last month for that very reason.

My other fears are that, the investigation being conducted by WG will now aim to exaggerate or possible distort completely the true level of concern that Ms Anon had about pupil welfare, and that they will back this up with criticisms of the school following the recent visit of their own personnel. Feedback from care staff has not been encouraging. Ms Anon is quite capable of being persuaded to alter her testimony, especially if she sees it doing damage to the school, and we are all aware that she will benefit from a significant redundancy payment if it were to close.

All in all, a difficult situation for all of us, but I see with some dread the way things might transpire if expediency were to trump decency.”

See also: Support group demands public inquiry

Interview with former pupil

Bill Colley