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"A very predictable betrayal"

Part 2: Witherslack

This is the second part of our interview with Bill Colley who agreed to answer questions about the role of Witherslack in the demise of the school.

Why did you approach Witherslack in the first place?

When I first became involved with the school in January 2018 it was clear that there was going to be a short term funding crisis due to the legacy of the tragic events in February 2017 and I knew that the school finances needed to be strengthened. The Board rejected my suggestion when I first proposed it at a Board meeting but their own decision to try to raise £300,000 by fund raising was never going to work, and in the very short time I had to save the school, I needed to act quickly. So I contacted 4 schools groups and then drove down to Cumbria to meet with Witherlslack directors Jude and Howard Jones.

By the time it was becoming clear that the Board’s own fundraising was going to fail, I think they raised about £30,000, they had come round to the idea of a takeover and after that it was simply a case of going through preliminary meetings and starting the due diligence process.

As I said to the Board and Witherslack when we had our scoping meetings, we needed to modernise some of our systems, overhaul policies, develop a proper business plan, and do some proper marketing. I was very positive. The school was going to grow quite quickly and I knew that we would reach break-even by the end of 2019.

What did they think of the school?

They loved it. The sun always seemed to be shining when they came to visit! We were going to be their Scottish base and they were looking to expand into other parts of Scotland. The first condition they imposed was that I had to commit to staying on but then move into a regional manager role, which did not appeal at all, but I had to agree so that the takeover could go ahead.

Were they aware of the difficulties the school was facing?

I one respect, yes. They had access to all the information about Perth & Kinross Council and their campaign against the school, and the tragic events of February 2017, and just saw the authority’s behaviour as pretty sick. Jude Jones described it as “arse-covering”, which I found amusing at the time because it was a pretty accurate but very blunt statement.

What neither I nor they understood however was that the Care Inspectorate and Education Scotland were also determined that the school close, until we discovered that in the May inspections.

Even so, they were very clear that they could fight back against this and exuded confidence. I think that this whole debacle came as a shock to them and that they did not realise how corrupt things are up here.

What plans did they have for the school?

They were very ambitious. They were going to transform the infrastructure with new buildings, an all-weather pitch, parking, a new ICT system, upgrade accommodation etc etc. They were also going to increase staffing levels, particularly at management level. So we had training in their management information system, there was going to be a change in the name of the school and that was at a final stage, and they had senior staff working in the school from August onwards.

Did they have any concerns about the school?

None were openly expressed. I think that the main issues were around the Scottish curriculum and how that was organised but we had already re-vamped things and were working with a couple of consultants to make sure that everything was in place for a full inspection in January 2019.

They went through all the care records meticulously and spent a lot of time with Angie and her team. If there were concerns it was with the lack of a management information system which is common in smaller schools. We kept asking them if they had any concerns but they clearly did not.

The only recommendation they made to me was that senior care wrokers should take more responsibility to release the weight from Angie’s shoulders. They also felt that her two roles, Head of Care and Child Protection Coordinator should be split, but their plans were to increase management staffing so significantly that all of this would then be possible.

Did you have any concerns about Witherslack taking over the school?

Yes, but not so serious that it caused me to think that it would be better for the school to close, or indeed that there were better options. They had a very corporate feel and we were a family and a community rather than a business. But the business side of things had been neglected for a long time and we needed to ramp-up our marketing, business planning and so on.

I don’t think that I would have fitted what they wanted in the long term, which is why I aimed to move on once that things were settled.

So were they running the school at that point?

To be honest, I have no idea who was really in charge. When we asked the managers who were visiting, they always answered, “That is a good question”! I never got to see the final agreement signed between the Board and Witherslack and there was no plan for who I should report to or what my own obligations were. It was a mess.

Jude Jones told me in September that Witherslack were running the school and was cross that there was Education and Care Committe that day, which I brushed-off as just a ‘swansong’ for the 2 Board members.

It was Howard Tennant of Witherslack who held the disciplinary appeal for the staff member who submitted those false allegations, so clearly Witherslack had responsibility for care. It was then that I informed Mr Tennant that she had submitted a complaint about her colleagues and he was very dismissive. He agreed that we could not sack that member of staff but said, “We want rid of her don’t we"?

Why did it all go wrong?

There were no difficulties or concerns with Witherslack until 2nd November when I told them about the outcome of the police investigation which cleared the school of any wrongdoing. During that conversation with Jude Jones she told me that the Care Inspectorate were taking enforcement action and that they were, “very scared”. No-one had told me about this but Andrew Cubie knew.

It made no sense at all. You can’t take enforcement action unless there is evidence that something has happened.

I wrote immediately to both Andrew Cubie and Jude Jones offering that both Angie and I would step aside even though we had done nothing wrong, just to allow the takeover to go ahead, but on the following Wednesday, I was suspended. I knew then that this had been instigated by the Care Inspectorate to get me out of the way so that I would not insist that the Board challenge the legality of the improvement notice.

Everything after that was out of my control.

Why did the Board allow Witherslack to produce the safeguarding report?

I really don’t know. It’s bizarre. You have an organisation that is now looking to pull-out of a deal with a clause that allows them to duck any financial responsibilities if there are major concerns or the risk of reputational damage, and then hand to them on a plate the perfect opportunity to do this.

It is one of the biggest mistakes in th whole story. That, and believing what the Care Inspectorate were saying at the time. It was a very predictable betrayal and I saw it coming a couple of days after I was suspended.

So what do you think of Witherslack now?

95% of the people working for them are probably decent people. I had good chats with a couple of their Head Teachers and liked them and what they were saying about the group.

But that final decision to destroy a school community to save money defines what the group is. And to do it by destroying the professional repution of good people makes me think that they are operating on the same level as PKC. Completely devoid of any sense of humanity or moral direction.

The Tennant Report is, in my view, criminal rather than just defamatory. It was a deliberate deception and tanatamount to fraud. I was not allowed to see it until the school had been closed. What was most shocking was that the Board stated that they did not have the professional skills or experience to challenge it. So, the school was left defenceless.

Do you regret approaching Witherslack in the first place?

Not really. I had no choice. The Board fundraising was going to fail right from the very start and by the time they realised this, it would have been too late to explore other options.

Witherslack simply exploited an opportunity to get out when they realised that the Care Inspectorate would do everything they could to block the takeover, but the way they did it was pure evil.

Can they not be sued for what they did?

That is not something that I can talk about. But hopefully an independent investigation will uncover all that has happened so that this sort of thing never happens again.

What would you say to the directors if you met them again?

Nothing. I would just want them to see the interviews that Treehouse have recorded for their film and see the human suffering that has resulted from their actions. That would haunt them for the rest of their lives. Unless, of course, they have no compassion or understanding.

Bill Colley