Left in the dark by PPP

13th February 2004 at 00:00
It's shameful that children with special needs should be shunted around with a minimum of consultation, says Roy Mackay

ith so much work on Scotland's school estate linked to public private partnership (PPP) schemes and with more to come, I wonder how competent Scotland's education authorities are to manage the scale and complexity of all this and remain focused on their core responsibilities. Not at all - if my experience in Edinburgh is typical.

Special educational needs are not only being neglected but those involved with SEN schools are being pushed around in a way even the most battle-weary reader would not believe. My son's school has already been the subject of several rejected, aborted and one ultimately successful statutory consultation exercise - a process that began in April 1997 and ended (or so we thought) in August 2002 when we supported a merger with another SEN school in a new building due for completion in August next year on a mainstream campus.

Our support was based on assurances of "a transition period from now until the opening of the new school that is professionally planned and resourced and inclusive of all the parties concerned", and that the new school would be a "centre of excellence", to give just two examples.

I have recently returned to our school board. Within three weeks of my first meeting I found myself at a second, held at the request of the authority, where we learnt that the director of education has decided to build another new school on our site a year before we are due to leave, that this will involve us moving to as yet unplanned accommodation in August this year and that because it has already been agreed after previous statutory consultation to close our school, we are not to be consulted.

This message was delivered by the same two officials who, at my first meeting, gave details of the latest plans in the current PPP scheme. This double decant wasn't even under consideration at that stage. In the circumstances, I am sure you will not be surprised to learn that the council cannot show there has been proper professional assessment of this or that it has plans for the additional move for these children with complex special educational needs.

What on earth happened in those three weeks to cause the authority to neglect the professional standards of duty and care it has to these children?

When the authority supplied nothing following my requests for information on its obligations, and on the rights of pupils and parents in this situation, my suspicion grew. Some research uncovered a series of its own key principles and policies that the authority is choosing to ignore and a whole raft of priorities relating to SEN and communications where the implementation dates have been shifted beyond completion of the PPP scheme.

I also established that it has a duty to conduct statutory consultation on proposals to change the site of any school.

In spite of this, on January 13 the director of education sought the approval of councillors to begin statutory consultation on proposals to build the other new school on our site. In the consultation papers, there is only one significant mention of our school, stating that it is due to be vacated. They fail to mention that it is not due to be vacated until a year after building work on this new school will begin, or that this will involve our pupils attending school at three different sites in the space of a year.

The papers offer no alternative sites. The submission to councillors carries a recommendation from Ewan Aitken, the executive member for youth strategy and education, which concludes: "This proposal would mean a solution being created as quickly as possible which can only be good news for the pupils and staff concerned."

Councillors had apparently already decided they would not get away with ignoring their statutory duty and raised a motion to include us in the consultation but failed to consider the other important issues the deputation from our school board raised before agreeing unanimously to start the consultation three days later.

The following morning it was apparent to everyone that complaints against officials had been lodged with the council and that allegations of breaches of the councillors' code of conduct had been submitted to the Standards Commission for Scotland.

Statutory consultation has begun and at least we now have an extra option to consider: that the other school is delayed for a year until we have left for our own new site.

We even have a couple of sentences to consider on the effect all this will have on our pupils, including the admission that "two moves of school would be disruptive and may cause anxiety for pupils".

Roy Mackay is a parent member of Willowpark school board in Edinburgh. He writes in a personal capacity.

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