It's not a sin to listen

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Reports of parent power forcing Renfrewshire Council into a U-turn on secondary school closures are not the full story, Roy Glen says

There can be few more emotive subjects for a convener of education to discuss than the future of schools. Parents are committed guardians of their children's educational inheritance. Teachers may fear that policy changes may adversely affect the world in which they create opportunities for children to learn. And in the national debate about what public private partnerships (PPPs) will produce over time, there is a natural resistance to change.

Over the past three months, Renfrewshire Council has been consulting on the future of Gryffe High and Linwood High where we faced split catchment areas and an inherited solution to the over-provision of places, which just had not worked.

It is true to say that apprehension featured among my many emotions when meeting with parents whose children attended the two schools. But it is also true to say that I had a huge sense of excitement, for I was investigating a project that - if handled properly - could have the potential to offer options to pupils that their parents wouldn't have dreamt of.

The future of Gryffe and Linwood high schools became the focus of the biggest consultation I have ever led. I was not to know then that the consultation would take so many twists and turns, challenge me so hugely and make me question myself harder than I ever have before.

We explained two options for change to parents. One involved knocking down both schools and building a much larger school to merge the two. The other option was more complex, involving changing the catchment areas of both schools, refurbishing one and replacing the other with a new school which would be co-located with a new Catholic secondary, also to be built as part of our PPP project. The council made clear that it had no preference for one scheme over another.

Three months of whirlwind activities followed, involving nine public meetings as well as discussions with many, many other interested parties.

Our discussions were vigorous, thorough, sometimes boisterous and always challenging. After three months, we felt that we had left no stone unturned.

At times we felt daunted; inevitably there was some misinformation, which made our jobs harder. Some reports suggested that there had originally been only one option put forward, which was rejected, but in fact that had never been the case. Inevitably, in any emotive situation, some people will emerge as spokespersons for groups and the danger is that, if they get it wrong, everyone is misinformed.

But what rang true throughout the entire exercise was that there was a consultation going on. A real consultation. That, I believe, is the key to successful school rationalisation: consultation, with all the bruises. It means you must be absolutely clear about why the status quo is not appropriate, what the options are, and be utterly frank about the consequences. You must really put the cards on the table.

There is a lot of advantage in having more than one option for change, to try to build consensus around the best way forward. In our case, favour swung hugely towards option 1 - a new school for Linwood High and a refurbishment of Gryffe High, which the council approved.

While we have agreed to keep both schools, this is not a soft option. The consultation process was clear about the implications and the responsibilities the communities had to accept. Gryffe High will become a true community school, serving all pupils. Linwood High will require to work in close partnership with Gryffe and the new Catholic secondary.

School rationalisation is often discussed nowadays as if it has come about because of PPP. That isn't true - PPP is only the way that we fund the solutions councils agree are the best way forward to address too many (or too few) school places. In Renfrewshire, we began our school rationalisation programme two years before we looked at PPP. Our strategy drives PPP, not the other way round.

Roy Glen is convener of Renfrewshire Council's lifelong learning and work policy board.

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