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Sympathy for the Devil?

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What was the reason behind the decision of Perth & Kinross Council way back in September 2017 to target the New School and force it into closure?

There are two principal schools of thought.

1. Education officers who had taken the decision not to extend funding for a vulnerable young person and told him that news just three days before he took his own life, were both embarrassed and ashamed that their judgement may in some way have contributed to his death. A clumsily executed plan was hatched to try to smear the school and suggest to others that the quality of care that he experienced might in some way be to blame. Knowing that the school would refuse to comment publicly on such sensitive and personal matters out of respect for the family, Council officers knew that it would be powerless to counter such rumours. The reputation of the school could be easily be destroyed, without managers even knowing about it.

2. It was just about money. A succession of failures when challenging placing requests and tribunals had demonstrated that TNS was providing what Perth & Kinross Council could not. Numbers were rising and there was a long list of prospective pupils waiting to get into the school. Nearly 200 children in Perth & Kinross do not attend school. Multiply even a small fraction of that by the fees that the school has to charge in order to maintain staffing levels set elsewhere, and you have a very big financial burden to carry from an ever-dwindling budget.

Get rid of the school and you get rid of the problem. Kids can just stay at home if there is no alternative to local authority provision. There is no need to worry about anyone challenging the council on its failures. Neither Education Scotland nor the Scottish Government seem interested. It is a very cosy arrangement. Non-attenders are not even counted at government level or referenced in inspection findings. A failure to fulfil statutory obligations, i.e. to provide an education, has become a commonly accepted means of managing council ASN budgets.

They could, of course, have made some attempt to improve local provision and thus stem the flow of prospective pupils to the school, but that would have required skills, knowledge and experience, assets that the authority just does not have.

As pathetic and disturbing as these hypotheses may be, there must be at least some element of truth about them.

So, did the school fail in some way to build a more collaborative relationship with Perth & Kinross Council?

A straight answer is yes. However, relationships can only be built and maintained if both sides show a degree of mutual respect.

Early in 2018, before the change Head of School, Perth & Kinross wrote a memorandum of understanding that was in theory aimed at developing a better working relationship. When school managers saw this, they were broadly supportive but balked against the idea that education officers from the authority should in any way have an influence on the way the pupils were supported or that the school was run.

The principal objection was that they did not have the skills and experience to contribute to pupil support in the school. It was they after all who had failed previously when young people and families were seeking an education that the authority itself could not deliver.

What they offered in pupil meetings was often embarrassing. It is true to say that there were some good educational psychologists, but it also became clear that they had been instructed to attack the school in any way they could and soon lost the respect of staff through dishonesty, verbal aggression, and unprofessional conduct.

It was the same officers who were present in the final week of term and he demonstrated so conspicuously to the whole world that they had no respect of young people, for parents and carers, or the dedicated members of staff. They made appalling decisions that demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of child development, mental health, and psychiatric conditions such as autism and PDA. Neither parents and their children, nor highly experienced members of staff were consulted about key decisions.

Children’s rights were abused. No thought was given to transition planning nor to forming the collaborative relationships that would be needed in the months ahead. Parents were lied to. Paperwork was doctored. False accusations were made against the school and the school community that families had learnt to respect and trust.

Staff have since spoken of the trauma they suffered when the heart was ripped out of the school and replaced by the cold calculating cruelty of that advisory team. Three wanted to report what they witnessed as child abuse. But to whom?

Everything done during that final week gave the impression that there were no human beings present, just irritants, annoyances, and statistics.

That is why additional support needs provision in Perth & Kinross is in crisis. They have the wrong people making the key decisions. They have managers but no leaders. And they are only held accountable for the budget and not for the impact of their own actions on dedicated staff across the authority and the children they are desperately trying to support.

The failure of their provision at Forteviot needs no further comment. One child. £150,000 of government money. Zero success for 13 pupils who had been happily attending TNS on a daily basis.

Should we feel any sympathy for them?

It is now difficult to do so. Their actions have caused immense suffering to vulnerable young people and their families, and to staff who worked tirelessly to make TNS what it was.

The school attempted on several occasions to meet with the head of secondary and inclusion, Rodger Hill, but he spurned every opportunity.

The new Head of School asked to speak to the service manager, Mark Neil, but once again this was refused.

The plan devised in September 2017 was like a supertanker that could not change course. However hard the school tried, there was nothing that could be done to avert what managers understood in January 2018 to be inevitable. Everything was predicted. The Board was warned. But they were naïve and ill-equipped to combat what was to follow.

Perhaps the cruellest part of their campaign was to target the Head of Care and make false accusations that she and her colleagues had failed to follow child protection procedures. This is what they told the Registrar of Independent schools. This is what they told the SSSC. And when the SSSC investigated and found this to be untrue, neither PKC nor the SSSC informed the Registrar to ensure that the stain remained on an otherwise unblemished career.

And during the final awful weeks, when the Head was suspended and had no opportunity to defend himself, Sheena Devlin of PKC urged the press to believe that he was guilty of serious child protection failings, and demanded of the Board of Governors that he be reported to the GTCS.

Since then, the Council, just like John Swinney and the Care Inspectorate and Education Scotland, has realised that no-one believes the fake story they constructed and they have all backtracked to hide behind the other big lie, that the school closed for financial reasons. The good reputation of the school was more convincing than the fabricated allegations that they disseminated at that time.

Karen Reid (former Head of the Care Inspectorate – now Chief Officer at PKC) made a sad attempt to blame concerns about “educational support at the school”, but this was just another ‘lie’ to add to the long list that had already been told. It is alleged that Susie Turner informed parents that TNS staff were not safe to work with their children. Ms Devlin stated that references from school managers could not be believed in order to deny TNS staff any opportunity to work in PKC’s own crumbling system, and further allegations were made that the school had not looked after and cared for pupils when it was in operation.

As we now know, there were no child protection concerns. The whole thing was a charade orchestrated to destroy the reputation of the school, and to destroy the school community itself, just as those education officers had done during the final week when they had the final say in decision-making.

In the battle between good and evil, the latter won.

Do we have sympathy for the Devil?

No.

Bill Colley