Closure of the New School Butterstone: independent review report
The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills commissioned this independent review, conducted by James Martin CBE, into the closure of the New School Butterstone to consider the procedures and circumstances which led to the closure.
Chapter 6: Conclusions
6.1 As summarised in the financial section of Chapter 2, the School, which had been in a difficult financial position for some time, closed because in the view of the Board the Charitable Trust should be wound up (paragraph 2.26).
In carrying out this review, I have come to further conclusions, which I have set out below, referenced against the sections they relate to.
6.2 The Board's attempts to improve the School's financial position over 2017 and 2018, by seeking to increase pupil numbers, reducing staff costs and through fundraising, were insufficient to keep the School in business (paragraph 2.20).
6.3 The deciding factor in winding up the Trust was the notice of withdrawal by Witherslack from a Business Transfer Agreement, which had effectively underpinned the School's finances (paragraph 2.26).
6.4 Witherslack withdrew from the Agreement because its senior management team had lost confidence in the School's management team and the school's staff, principally over their perceived inability to recognise, report and manage safeguarding and child protection issues (paragraph 5.40). Replacing both management and staff was deemed by Witherslack to be an unrealistic option.
6.5 Not enough notice was taken of poor relationships between the School's management team and outside bodies. The relationship between the School's staff and officials of Perth and Kinross Council and the Care Inspectorate was, for the period under review, at times poor.
In the case of some of the School's management and some officials of Perth and Kinross Council, relationships over the few years leading up to the closure of the School had, on occasion, become extremely difficult. There was an apparent lack of professional and personal trust between some of the individuals involved from both organisations, which had a detrimental impact on the School (paragraph 3.36). Furthermore, there could have been an attempt to rebuild the relationship between Perth and Kinross Council and the School through mediation, yet this in itself became the subject of dispute (paragraph 4.39).
6.6 Assertions that Perth and Kinross Council and the Care Inspectorate were involved in a conspiracy to bring about the closure of the School do not stand up to any serious scrutiny (paragraph 4.28). However, friction between the School and the Care Inspectorate could have been addressed earlier if the Care Inspectorate had pursued a response to its letter to the Chair of the Board of the School setting out concerns over Head of School B's response to the May 2018 inspection (paragraph 4.32). That letter, which was addressed to the School and marked for the Chair of the Board's attention was never received by the Chair.
6.7 In addition, the suggestion that the School was the target of an even larger widespread conspiracy to see the School close does not stand up to serious scrutiny. I have found no evidence to support such allegations, which appear to be an attempt to divert attention from the School's management team's own poor decision making and assessment and handling of risk (paragraph 4.91).
Processes and procedures
6.8 There is a clear learning point for regulatory and inspection bodies, related to the differences in the gradings awarded to the School between the May 2017 and 2018 unannounced inspections and how these were perceived by the School. This is that there is a need for clarity in those bodies own processes and what is, and is not, the subject of inspection and assessment (paragraph 3.19).
Support and Guidance
6.9 There is little doubt that the suicide within the School, and its aftermath, had a long-term effect on the management team in the School, and particularly on external relationships. The impact on the management team of the School, particularly in a small school like this, may not have been fully appreciated by the School's Trustees (paragraph 3.14).
6.10 There was a fundamental misunderstanding within the senior management team at the School of the role of the Care Inspectorate, expecting significant support and guidance. Additionally, alarm bells were not raised at Board level arising from such requests for support, alongside the requests from Head of School A and the Head of Care to review the senior staff responsibility for the School's safeguarding and child protection responsibilities (paragraph 3.29).
6.11 The School's Board and Senior Management failed to adequately consider the emerging recurring theme and number of concerns around safeguarding and protection, and did not put in place the appropriate training for those in key positions, which ultimately led to the conditions and recommendations that were applied to the School (paragraph 4.10).
Safeguarding and protection
6.12 Despite four unannounced Care Inspectorate inspections taking place since the enactment of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, the School was not meeting the requirements of that Act, or GIRFEC, in terms of child protection and safeguarding (paragraph 4.19).
6.13 Assertions that Witherslack wrote the safeguarding report to justify its withdrawal from the School, do not stand up to scrutiny. Witherslack agreed to prepare a safeguarding report for the Board after the decision to withdraw had been made. Furthermore, Witherslack's concerns around safeguarding and child protection had already been made clear to the Board in its letter of 5 November 2018 and at the meeting of 6 November 2018. It is difficult, therefore, to see how Witherslack would gain from conducting such a review in the way suggested. It also should not be lost sight of that the review was sought by the Board and commissioned from Witherslack. It was not a Witherslack initiative (paragraph 4.90).
The closure of the School
6.14 The Board, while considering options for keeping the School open, gave insufficient consideration to planning for the closure of the School (paragraph 5.18).
6.15 By reneging on its commitment to administer the School on behalf of the Board until 24 December 2018, and instead giving only eight days' notice of its intention to quit the School on 23 November 2018 to the Board, Witherslack created conditions that led to the abrupt closure of the School (paragraph 4.96).
6.16 The Board sought assistance from Perth and Kinross Council and the outside bodies too late in the day. It was unrealistic to expect that Perth and Kinross Council would have the resources to deploy a management team to the School at only a few hours' notice, or that the Council would be able to underwrite the continuing existence of an independent school in financial difficulty (paragraph 5.16).
6.17 It was entirely a matter for the Council, as a public body, to decide whether it had the resources available that could be released immediately from other commitments and responsibilities to comply with the Board's request. That the Council decided that it could not undertake the management of the School, however disappointing for the School, was a legitimate and reasonable decision for the Council to take. It did not cause the closure of the School (paragraph 5.17).
Communications and the impact of the closure
6.18 The School had no coherent communication plan at any point in the School's last week (paragraph 5.47).
6.19 The needs of the young people should have been the priority. While I accept that the Board were searching to find ways to keep the School open, and that that option would have been best for the young people, it was clear to them from 6 November that the almost inevitable outcome would be the closure of the School in a matter of weeks. More notice of the School's difficulties should have been given to parents, carers and placing authorities and of the likelihood of closure. Alerting placing authorities, parents and carers with only four days' notice of the School's closure, almost two weeks after they knew that Witherslack would withdraw their support, and that it was unlikely that the School would be able to continue beyond Christmas, left insufficient time for person centred planning for the future education of the young people at the School. However, I accept that Witherslack's decision to bring forward the date of their withdrawal from the School severely constrained the Board's ability to do so (paragraph 5.50).
6.20 Furthermore, even had Witherslack honoured their original agreement to administer the School on behalf of the Trustees until 24 December, rather than bringing that date forward by a month, placing authorities and privately funding parents would still have faced a considerable challenge in planning for the young people's transition to another educational provision suitable to their needs.
6.21 Insufficient guidance was given by the Board as to the roles and responsibilities of the School's management team and outside agencies they had invited to attend the School in its last week. This led to confusion and flawed decision making procedures among staff, the School's management team, Witherslack and officials of Care Inspectorate, HM Inspectors and Perth and Kinross Council, which increased the tension within the School (paragraph 5.32).
6.22 In the absence of clear guidance, officials from Perth and Kinross Council, HM Inspectors and the Care Inspectorate, took on decision making responsibilities in the School's last week, which should properly have been the responsibility of the School's Trustees and their nominated management team. This overstepped their roles and added to the already difficult atmosphere and relationships with the School (5.43).
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