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Interview with former Head of School

We conducted a telephone interview with Bill Colley to try to get his views on the reasons behind the closure of the school.

Q After more than 6 months, are you clearer about why the school was forced to close down?

A Not really. There was clearly no substance to the complaint made by a member of staff and that was known at the time that conditions were placed on the school and an improvement order issued by the Care Inspectorate. I have written to those involved but no-one can give any straight answers. It seems to have been driven by the Care Inspectorate but they will not justify the requirements of the improvement notice so it all seems extremely suspicious.

Q Why did it close down in 5 days?

A Again, I do not know. It was more expensive to do this than continue to the end of term. This is why we need an investigation. We are getting contradictory information from John Swinney and the Board of Governors. When I took over in April, we were already well underway to eliminating a budget deficit of over £300,000 and I had forecast a surplus by year end.

Q What do you think about the way it was closed?

A It was not done in the way I would have done it! I had thought about how I would announce a closure when I took over in April because things were very precarious, and I had decided that I would drive to every home and deliver the news in person. I would not have sent an email out but understand that this had to be done because of the timescales. Remember that I was suspended at the time that closure was announced and only returned after the kids had left.

The final week was shameful. In the 36 years I have been involved in education I have never encountered such cruelty towards children. You can see the trauma in the faces of staff interviewed in the following days. We should also have done more to support parents, but staff were constrained in what they were allowed to do and say by the presence of external personnel who made all the key decisions. It was not TNS for those last few days.

Q Why did Witherslack pull-out of the deal to take over the school?

A There are two possible explanations. The first is that they were frightened-off by the improvement notice and conditions and realised the hostility towards them from PKC and the regulators. We had warned them when we approached them in May, but they appeared to be confident that they could fight back. They told us that they were withdrawing straight after those conditions were imposed so it seems that they suddenly appreciated what the school had been up against for all that time. The second is that they had changed their minds on moving into Scotland because they knew that their business model would not work here and just used the actions of the regulators as an excuse. I think the second may be correct. But I have no evidence. Probably a combination of both.

Q But they wrote a very critical report about safeguarding. Was this not the reason?

A Absolutely not. They had raised no concerns at all prior to that report and it was written so that they did not have to pay the financial penalties associated with reneging on the agreement. The report makes no sense. It is an appalling piece of work. Dishonest, distorted and simply unbelievable.

Had they announced that they were withdrawing because they had changed their minds, or because of the improvement notice, I would have publicly supported them. To do it in the way they did was immoral. I still do not understand why the governors allowed them to do that report. The result was inevitable.

Q Were you guilty of any mistakes or errors of judgement?

A Not that I know of. The only way there can have been a ‘failure to report’ is if there had been a child protection matter to report but this was clearly not the case. This was already known before I was suspended.

Q Why were you suspended?

A For failing to report a child protection matter!

Q That appears to make no sense.

A My suspension was actually designed to get me out of the way so that I could not insist on challenging the improvement notice which was issued 2 days later. I was, of course cleared, but by then it was too late for me to do anything.

I was also not allowed by the Care Inspectorate to return to school until all the pupils had gone. The board should have known that this stipulation was invalid and ignored it for the sake of the kids.

Q The Care Inspectorate have stated that they were not involved in the closure. Is this true?

A No. The Board has already stated that they faced “intolerable pressures” from the regulators and the behaviour of the Care Inspectorate from May 2018 onwards indicated that they were gunning for the school. Even when closure had been announced, they kept contacting the school to demand that it be de-registered as a service. They also demanded that 2 innocent members of staff remain suspended and in doing this caused immense harm to at least one young person. We found them to be highly unprofessional and dishonest and evasive.

Q How did you react when you were told that you were suspended.

A I laughed

Q Why?

A Because I had predicted everything that was happening, and it was just another piece of the jigsaw falling into place. It was all very obvious from the moment the Care Inspectorate ignored the outcome of the initial investigation. Both Angie and I had agreed several days beforethat we would step aside because it was clear that the Care Inspectorate were targeting us, and we though that this might help to save the school, but as soon I I was suspended, I knew the game was up.

Q Were you not upset or angry?

A Probably. But there was also a strange sense of relief because it meant the end of the long battle I had been engaged in to save the school over a period of 11 months. There was nothing more I could do. It was a weight off my shoulders at the time. Everything now fell to the board of governors. It was their responsibility.

Q FOI documentation shows that while you were suspended, Sheena Devlin put in a complaint about you for contacting parents. Was this the case? Were you contacting parents?

A No. I did receive a couple of phone calls from parents asking me for advice, but I did not actively contact any parents myself.

Q So that was a lie?

A Either that or a mistake.

Q Why were you reported to the GTCS?

A Sheena Devlin insisted on it, but it was Sandra Wright of the Care Inspectorate who put the complaint in on 29th November, over 3 weeks after the police investigation had shown that Angie and I made the correct decisions.

Q Does that worry you?

A No. It is just an occupational hazard. It would worry me if there was any substance to the complaint, but it makes the inspectorate and PKC look vindictive and stupid.

Q How did Moore House get involved?

A While I was suspended, I contacted 4-5 schools groups because I was desperate to save the school. I knew that PKC could not meet the needs of pupils and that there had to be something in the place of TNS. I arranged visits for a couple of those groups for when I returned to work. Moore House took a little longer, but I had long conversations with them. I visited their place at Bathgate in January, I think, with two other members of staff and we liked their senior personnel. I then setup contact between the Board and Moore House and left it up to them. It was not for me or my colleagues to vet Moore House and I did not offer any opinion to the board.

Q You did that while you were suspended?

A I know! Highly unprofessional! But no-one else was going to do it so I had to.

Q Why didn’t you apply for a job with the new provision?

A It would not have been fair on them and would have delayed the new service being setup. Remember that PKC and the regulators had made it clear that they did not want a school there at all and it is only because of you and the rest of the parents that they have been forced to accept that it is needed. There was huge political resistance to any new provision.

Q What have you been doing since January?

A The same stuff I was doing before I got involved with TNS. Expert witness instructions, advocacy, research. I also setup a new company on the morning after my suspension to improve access to mental health assessments and have been developing this over the last few months.

I am also supporting efforts to get a full investigation into what happened. That is crucial.

Q Why? If the school is already closed, why bother?

A Because other schools need to be protected. If the regulators have behaved unprofessionally, they need to be held to account to stop this happening again. There are too many unanswered questions.

You must also bear in mind that some former pupils have not returned to school, and there are members of staff without jobs. They deserve better.

Q Do you regret becoming involved with TNS?

A The exact opposite. It was the best job I had and the best team of professional colleagues I have every worked with. It was a great job even if the challenges were huge. In fact, they were so big that even an organisation like Witherslack couldn’t face up to them. We almost got there. Pupil numbers were rising and the school emerging from a terrible 18 months. That is what is so frustrating.

I was only there for a short time but TNS gets under your skin. I loved the place.

Q Why was the relationship with PKC so poor?

A I think it was because they were really struggling to meet pupil needs and having a provision like ours on their doorstep was not welcome. But we were only taking pupils who had been failed by the authority, by which I mean those who had already missed months if not years of schooling. I had tried on several occasions to arrange meetings with Rodger Hill and the new service manager, but there was no response. I think they had already decided to force closure by the time I had arrived.

Q Why have you not released the complaint they put in which seems to have started the whole process?

A I have wanted to for months but because we were such a small school it would be easy to identify individual pupils referenced in the complaint. It is clear from FOI documentation that PKC are desperate for the complaint to be kept secret because it demonstrates how poorly they understand additional support needs. Hopefully an investigation will make it all clear.

Q Do you think that there will be an investigation?

A In all honesty, no. I think that there are too many people who will have too much to lose if the truth comes out. The school should not have closed down. It was probably the safest school in Perth & Kinross and obviously much needed. The failure of Forteviot demonstrates that.

Q Why did it fail?

A TNS or Forteviot?

Q Forteviot?

A I doubt that it had anything to do with the staff who had been recruited. More the lack of leadership at authority level and the strong distrust that parents had of education officers.

Q Do you have any regrets?

A You mean about what I did in the last few weeks? Possibly. I think that I could have been more direct with the governors in telling them how they were being deceived by PKC, Witherslack and the Care Inspectorate. Chris had been doing that for a long time and I did my best, but it is not easy telling someone that they are being conned. They form their own judgements.

Possibly also resisting the suspension rather than being so compliant. I had just myself suspended 2 members of staff for what I think were justifiable reasons at the time to make sure that an investigation could be carried out quickly. So, I felt that I could hardly challenge my own suspension, even though it was ridiculous in the circumstances.

Q Are there any lessons that can be learnt from the whole closure of the school?

A Sadly, yes. They are quite negative. For me, I have lost all confidence in the regulatory system. It is clearly corrupt and I will never again believe inspection reports because I will always be asking myself if there are politics behind them, as was the case with TNS.

Lessons for others will only take place if there is a full investigation.

Q Finally, do you have a message for parents or staff?

A Just my deep appreciation for all the support that I and my colleagues have been given. We have also had support from across the independent school sector and even from PKC staff. That makes all the difference.

We will continue to fight for an investigation to ensure that everyone connected with the school gets the full story.

Bill Colley