The calm before the storm
In the weeks before closure, no-one could have predicted the maelstrom that was about to hit the school.
Education Minister John Swinney visited TNS and met with Witherslack representatives. He stated how important it was for services like TNS to exist and to make up for shortfalls in local provision and during that meeting expressed long-held concerns about the quality of support offered by Perth & Kinross Council, “even during the period that his own party ran the council”.
On 26th September, Mr Swinney contacted the school again to speak to the Head regarding a particularly difficult pupil placement and begged him to persist with the support being provided, saying how much he respected the school and the Head’s work over a number of years in both independent and authority-run services.
During September, Witherslack made a number of visits to plan what was to be a huge investment in the infrastructure, including a new fibre-optic broadband link costs several hundred thousand pounds, the construction of a new parking area, all-weather multi-use astro-turf pitch, up-grades to residential accommodation, and the renovation of The Lodge. A brand-new ICT system was due to be installed during the October break.
Witherslack met with Baroness Linklater, the visionary founder of the school and hosted Angie Gordon on a visit to some of their own services in England, and training was provided for all staff in their management information. Howard Tennant and Richard Wilkins reviewed care procedures and stated on several occasions that they saw little difficulty in adapting TNS processes to match their own, and the TNS care team was observed working with young people.
At no point were any concerns raised. Witherslack made plans to increase management staffing and re-organise residential systems so that pupils could be supported by a higher staff-pupil ratio, and their property teams searched for new premises in the local area to provide care homes for the increase in the pupil roll that was already gathering momentum ahead of the full takeover in January 2019.
But the Head of School was beginning to have doubts, as he explained in his interview.
He held off from making new appointments because contact with Witherslack started to go quiet at the same time that they were engaging with the Care Inspectorate. Having already urged them to consider very carefully how to manage the relationship between the school and Perth & Kinross Council and to think about ways of stemming the flow of day pupils to the school, he was already making plans for the termination of the takeover agreement when things came to a head in October.
Having hit his initial target of 24 pupils, and with a further 8 places offered, prospects looked good as several local authorities approached the school during the autumn to enquire about placements. He projected that the school would be at capacity by Easter 2020.
He concluded that the school could manage independently if necessary but that it needed to ‘re-brand’, invest in proper management information systems, and bring the new young adult service on-line as soon as possible. He had also concluded as far back as January 2018 that the school needed a proper system of external management and not a traditional board of governors.
However, he also stated openly to colleagues that he was worried about “high-level political interference” when the initial Witherslack takeover was agreed.
The events of October/November should have been no more that a storm-in-a-teacup. After all, the whole affair was “nothing to worry about” (Police officer leading the investigation).
No school has ever had enforcement action taken against it when nothing has happened.
No Head has ever been suspended for ‘failing to report a child protection matter’ when it was already known that there was no child protection matter to report.
Never before have the Scottish Ministers imposed conditions on a school when it has done nothing wrong.
The “high-level political interference” became very clear in the hours following the conclusion of that police investigation and swamped the school in a tsunami of vitriol. And the Board of Governors accepted every untruth told to them and caved-in without employing one iota of common sense or questioning the motives of those seeking to do the school harm.
On 23rd September, the school was looking ahead to a bright future and sustained growth.
On 2nd November, when the Care Inspectorate announced (illegal) enforcement action it was effectively dead.
26 years of work destroyed in an instant.
A safe and supportive school community laid waste by those who wanted it gone.
Not one Board member stood up to defend it. That would have taken courage, determination, and leadership.
Sadly, there was none.
Evil did triumph over good. And that is Scotland’s shame.