Saturday, 2 November 2013

North Ayrshire schools merger - the right decision

“I’m not comfortable with the proposal and this Cabinet will not be proceeding with this proposal.” With those words, Cllr Willie Gibson, SNP Leader of North Ayrshire Council, restored some faith in the democratic process.

Cllr Gibson’s statement referred to the controversial Council plan to create a Three Towns education campus in Ardrossan by merging four local schools – Stevenston’s Auchenharvie Academy, Ardrossan Academy, Irvine’s Haysholm School and Ardrossan’s James McFarlane School. The latter two facilities cater for children with additional support needs.

In the Council’s own public consultation on the proposal, 77% of respondents opposed the merger, with many people taking the time to detail exactly why a merged ‘super-school’ was not in the best interests of their children. Particularly compelling was evidence submitted by parents of children with profound physical and mental conditions who, if the Council’s merger plan had gone ahead, would have been accommodated within a ‘nest’ in a mainstream secondary campus attended by around 1,500 pupils. Such a development would have been wholly inappropriate for children with such additional needs, a fact that, apparently, was not obvious to Ms Carol Kirk, the Council’s Corporate Director (Education & Skills), which raises questions over her competency.

Mr Steven Quinn is another Council official who emerges with serious doubts over his ability to see what is in the interests of children rather than the employer that pays his salary. As North Ayrshire Council developed its merger proposal, Mr Quinn was rapidly promoted from a senior teaching post at Ardrossan Academy to the role of Head of Service Development within the Education department. Against reasoned and substantive arguments opposing a schools merger and the creation of a Three Towns campus, Mr Quinn’s position was to assert that parents, pupils and teachers were wrong. His contribution to a public meeting at Auchenharvie Academy bordered on the bizarre as he claimed people from all over the world would fly-in to see the new school that his audience overwhelmingly opposed.

Last week’s meeting of the Council’s SNP Cabinet opened with Ms Kirk and Mr Quinn still arguing against the local public who rejected the merger plan. However, while unelected Council officials certainly initiated and developed the plan to create a Three Towns campus in order to attract Scottish Government funding, the final decision on whether or not a merger would go ahead lay with elected councillors and, thankfully, they were prepared to listen to the public.

Representatives from the Parent Councils of each of the four affected schools addressed the Cabinet and, again, detailed a list of reasons why the Council’s proposal was not in the best interests of local children or communities. Once again, the case for educating children with additional support needs in a dedicated, specialised facility – not in a ‘nest’ within a mainstream secondary school – was articulated in reasoned but also moving terms by parents from both James McFarlane School and Haysholm School. It is beyond belief that Council officials apparently believe they know better than those parents in relation to what is in the best interests of their children.

Auchenharvie Parent Council members Veron Maneely and Nicola McPherson also set-out why Stevenston children should not be forced to travel to Ardrossan for their secondary education and why the town should not see its school closed. In addition to evidence showing larger schools perform worse in terms of educational attainment, the Auchenharvie parents pointed-out there were no ‘safe walking routes’ from parts of Stevenston to the preferred site of the merged school in Ardrossan, with pupils expected to walk across two towns and into a third. The alternative would have been for parents to find the cost of bus fares, despite the fact some parts of Stevenston are amongst the most deprived in Scotland.

The case against the merger plan was overwhelming, as was the public’s opposition in the Council’s own consultation – but make no mistake, had the final decision been in the hands of unelected Council officials, all of this would have been ignored and the merger would have gone ahead.

Cllr Willie Gibson, though, made clear he and his SNP colleagues had listened. After a short recess – during which, I am sure, a full and frank exchange of views took place between councillors and officers (and even between councillors and other councillors) – the Cabinet returned to the meeting room and Cllr Gibson delivered the decision parents and pupils wanted but had feared would not be forthcoming.

Politicians have so often been deaf to the views of their constituents – for an example we need only look to the previous Labour administration of North Ayrshire Council, which ignored public opposition and merged St Andrew’s Academy with St Michael’s Academy in a costly super-school (St Matthew’s Academy) built on Laighdykes playing field, the only public open-space and football pitches serving Saltcoats and Ardrossan. This time, though, SNP councillors listened to the public, and for that they are to be commended.

Some will argue Cllr Gibson and his colleagues may have acted out of self-preservation – they could not have failed to be aware of public sentiment indicating people would not vote SNP again if the merger went ahead – but I think the councillors who halted the proposal have earned the benefit of any doubt. SNP councillors listened to the people, they listened to Independent councillors, they listened even to the one Tory Councillor and to some within the Labour Group, all of whom opposed the schools merger.

The bottom line is that the proposed Three Towns campus and the plan to merge Auchenharvie Academy, Ardrossan Academy, James McFarlane School and Haysholm School should never have got off the ground. The then newly-elected SNP Council administration (May 2012) should have immediately said ‘no’ to the unelected officers who dreamt-up the plan. They didn’t and that is regrettable.

However, last week’s decision to stop the schools merger saw the SNP administration finally take control. That is to be welcomed and unelected officers should bear it in mind before embarking on any other ill-thought-through plans. The fact councillors appear to have taken their decision in reaction to the overwhelming view of local people is also to be welcomed. After all, the word ‘democracy’ stems from the Greek ‘demos’ (common people) and ‘kratos’ (rule).

We now look forward to the Council’s plan to safeguard secondary education at both Auchenharvie Academy and Ardrossan Academy, with a separate initiative to provide a stand-alone, state-of-the-art facility for the pupils of James McFarlane School and Haysholm School.

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