Saturday, 16 June 2012

Ardrossan Academy

Just after the recent North Ayrshire Council Election, I wrote an article for the3towns in which I said, “I’m glad that...sufficient numbers voted for the SNP to allow the party to form the Council administration. I’m glad Labour is out of office.”

The article continued, “Having said that, the SNP now has to put behind it the euphoria of electoral success and get on with the very serious job of running North Ayrshire Council. We, the people of North Ayrshire, have waited a very long time for a change of administration at Council headquarters, and we now want to see evidence of that change.”

I then cautioned, “The worst thing that could happen would be for the new SNP administration to simply pick-up where Labour left off”.

Sadly, that seems to be exactly what has happened.

Most local people will have been shocked to discover the SNP-run Council plans to merge Ardrossan Academy and Auchenharvie Academy – the story was revealed in the3towns last Monday (June 11). The man who will front the Council’s application for Scottish Government funding to build a new ‘super-school’ is Ardrossan SNP councillor Tony Gurney, the new administration’s Cabinet member for Education.

Before I go on, let me make clear I have the highest regard for Tony Gurney, as an individual and a councillor. But I strongly disagree with the plan to close Ardrossan Academy, and that is not to misrepresent what is proposed. The Council call it a merger and say no decision has been taken on where the new school will be located. However, with acres of Council-owned land at Auchenharvie, it is likely the new school would be built in Stevenston. That means what is actually being proposed is a new, bigger Auchenharvie Academy – it will have a new name, though – and the closure of Ardrossan Academy, with its prime site sold-off for residential development.

Of course, the SNP administration could revisit the crime of its Labour predecessor and build the new school on Laighdykes playing fields. Don’t even think about it!

In statements supporting the proposed merger of the two schools, Council officials wax lyrical about enhanced facilities and improved educational attainment for pupils. Have these officials ever visited St Matthew’s Academy, the ‘super-school’ built to house pupils from the merged St Andrew’s Academy and St Michael’s Academy?

Before St Matthew’s Academy was built, the Council trotted-out the same lines about ‘state-of-the-art facilities’ and how pupils would reap the benefits. The reality is a school of poor construction - certainly not worth anything like the millions-of-pounds it’s costing local taxpayers – and a substantial decline in educational attainment. For years, St Andrew’s Academy hovered around the top of North Ayrshire schools in terms of exam pass-marks, but the merged St Matthew’s Academy doesn’t come close.

This is not about our children’s education, it’s about money. Currently the SNP Scottish Government is handing-out millions-of-pounds for new schools, and North Ayrshire Council officials want a piece of the action. However, to get some of the money, the Council had to have a plan for a new school.

Merging Kilwinning Academy and Irvine Royal Academy was considered, but rejected. A much better idea, officials believed, was using the Council-owned land at Auchenharvie and merging the adjacent school with the similar facility in Ardrossan. Be under no illusion, this idea was born of unelected Council officials.

If this was an SNP idea, why was there no mention of it in their election manifesto and leaflets? The SNP fielded two candidates in Ardrossan – Tony Gurney and John Bruce – and both were elected. Would they have been elected in Ardrossan if they had told us they planned to close Ardrossan Academy? Of course they wouldn’t.

The reality, though, is that the SNP didn’t plan to merge Ardrossan Academy and Auchenharvie Academy. It is an idea that was initially developed under the previous Labour administration – although officials claim the merger plan was only formulated in February of this year, just three months before the election.

This crazy idea was developed by Council officials and was considered by the previous Labour Executive. Had Labour been returned to power on May 3rd, they would have brought forward the same plan. Sadly, the SNP has simply picked-up where Labour left off.

Only people who do not live in the area, and who know very little about local towns, could develop a plan to merge secondary schools in Stevenston and Ardrossan. Possibly this was thought up by the same unelected Council officials who devised Ardrossan’s polling arrangements on May 3rd – sending residents of Laird Weir to vote at St Peter’s Primary School (passing the Whitlees Centre Polling Place on the way), while those from Greenacres and Knockrivoch were told to vote in Saltcoats.

There is a significant difference between the roles of Council officials and councillors, or at least there is supposed to be. It’s called the ‘member/officer dichotomy’. In simple terms, members (councillors) formulate policy and officers (officials) carry it out. If we are being asked to believe SNP councillors formulated the policy to merge Ardrossan Academy and Auchenharvie Academy, then either they did it before May’s election and didn’t tell us, or there has been an incredible coincidence involving councillors and officials independently thinking the same thing at the same time since May 3rd.

In reality, this is an example of the ‘member/officer dichotomy’ in reverse – officials have formulated the policy and councillors are carrying it out.

Many people voted SNP on May 3rd because they wanted change in North Ayrshire. After 30 years of Labour administrations, local people wanted to see things done differently. Everybody and their dug knew it was officials that actually ran North Ayrshire Council and the Labour administration just did what they were told. With the election of SNP councillors and the formation of an SNP administration, we hoped things had changed. Sadly, it would appear they haven’t.

Ardrossan Academy has had a presence in the town for 130 years: no unelected official should have the power to destroy that historical link and the councillors we elect should make sure it doesn’t happen.

No data I have seen shows a link between larger, merged schools and improved educational attainment. On the contrary, the example of St Andrew’s Academy and St Michael’s Academy merged into St Matthew’s Academy shows the opposite. How will pupils of Ardrossan Academy fare when they are being bussed to school in Stevenston (and if they live less than 3 miles from Auchenharvie their parents will have to pay the bus fares)?

We voted for change on May 3rd and we wanted that change to be for the better. I certainly had high expectations of the new SNP administration, if only they were prepared to put local people first and stand up to the unelected Council officials who had previously bent Labour councillors to their will. My fear was the SNP might simply pick-up where Labour left off. Sadly, that seems to be exactly what has happened.

I don’t want Tony Gurney to be remembered as the man who killed Ardrossan Academy after 130 years. I don’t want the SNP to be the party that removed secondary education from Ardrossan.

However, if SNP councillors will not stand-up to unelected officials and their damaging ideas, then local people will have to do it. Saving Ardrossan Academy is a battle worth fighting. For the school’s pupils and the town of Ardrossan, it is a battle that must be won!

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