Friday, 25 October 2013

North Ayrshire schools merger - it's time to listen to the people



In paperwork provided to councillors for consideration at this week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council’s ruling SNP Cabinet (October 29), the following is given as a record of a question and answer at a public meeting in Ardrossan Academy (May 9 2013) with regard to the plan to merge the school with Auchenharvie Academy, James McFarlane School and Haysholm School:

Enquiry: The presentation mentioned the Council considered a number of sites for the new campus, did the Council also consider investing the funding into each school rather than merge them?

Response: The Scottish Government awarded the funding to the Council on the basis of merging the two secondary schools – the funding would not be available to the Council to upgrade either of the schools. If the outcome of the consultation is not to merge the schools then the Council will not be in a position to bring the existing school buildings up to a ‘modern, fit for purpose’ state.”

There are a number of points that arise from the Council’s reply to the question asked at the Ardrossan public meeting. Firstly, the Scottish Government awarded the funding to the Council on the basis of merging the two secondary schools because that was the proposal submitted to the Government by the Council in its funding application. The Scottish Government did not stipulate funding applications must relate to merger proposals.

Secondly, in an e-mail secured by the3towns under Freedom of Information legislation, a senior Council official admitted that a funding proposal to replace both Ardrossan Academy and Auchenharvie Academy would be unlikely to succeed because the current schools are not in a sufficiently poor condition. In other words, the Scottish Government would be unlikely to give the Council any money because the schools have been maintained sufficiently well that normal planned maintenance should be enough to keep them in an acceptable condition. Despite this, if the Council goes ahead with its merger plan, both schools will be demolished.

Thirdly, it is simply untrue for the Council to state “If the outcome of the consultation is not to merge the schools then the Council will not be in a position to bring the existing school buildings up to a ‘modern, fit for purpose’ state.” As stated above, the Council already has in place a programme of planned maintenance for all of the schools in North Ayrshire, including Ardrossan Academy and Auchenharvie Academy, and the funding to meet associated costs. The Council would have been failing in its responsibilities if it had not put in place a programme to maintain its schools, and had not set aside a budget for that purpose.

Both Auchenharvie Academy and Ardrossan Academy are currently listed as being in a satisfactory condition, with Council documents stating of the Ardrossan school, “the building structure and fabric does not appear to be suffering any major failings,” adding that “anticipated works likely to be required over the next twenty years” would come in at £500,000. This is the cost of major works other than those covered by the planned maintenance programme, with total expenditure averaging-out at just £25,000 a year.

For Auchenharvie Academy the anticipated major works over the next twenty years comes to a total of £580,000 or £29,000 a year.

There is only one school in North Ayrshire that is listed as being ‘poor’ for both condition and suitability – Largs Academy. Therefore, if it really was the case that without additional Scottish Government funding the Council will be unable to bring two ‘satisfactory’ schools up to a “modern, fit for purpose” state, then what chance has the double-rated ‘poor’ Largs Academy?

There is overwhelming public opposition to the Council’s schools merger plan – 77% of respondents to the local authority’s own public consultation rejected the proposal – so perhaps the elected representatives of the people should actually listen to the people.

Perhaps, also, our elected councillors should focus their attention on the pupils of James McFarlane School and Haysholm School, children with additional special needs who would severely struggle if shoe-horned into the campus of a mainstream super-school. The Council’s own figures show a new state-of-the-art facility for children with additional special needs could be provided for around £9m, compared to the projected £42m of the proposed merged Three Towns campus.

SNP councillors can still walk away from the merger plan with credibility and dignity. As a ‘listening Council’ they can take onboard what the public are saying and ditch an idea that was thought-up, not by SNP councillors, but by unelected senior Council officials, most of whom don’t even live in North Ayrshire
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