Friday, 8 November 2013

Council drops schools merger plan

North Ayrshire Council has abandoned plans to merge Stevenston’s Auchenharvie Academy with Ardrossan Academy and two schools for children with additional support needs – James McFarlane School in Ardrossan and Irvine’s Haysholm School.

The decision, revealed last Tuesday (October 29) on the3towns Facebook page, was taken by the local authority’s ruling SNP Cabinet at a meeting addressed by representatives from the Parent Councils of the four schools.

The merger proposal would have seen pupils from the two academies brought together in a new Three Towns campus on a site in Ardrossan, with children from the two special needs schools accommodated in what had been described by Council officials as a ‘nest’ within the mainstream facility.  In response to the Council’s public consultation on the merger plan, 77% rejected the proposal. 

Of the four affected schools, only James McFarlane produced a majority in favour of a merger.  However, at last week’s meeting of the SNP Cabinet, Elaine McTaggert, representing the Parent Council, clarified the school’s position, saying, “James McFarlane is a small, family school.  We have 28 children and, of those, 22 are unable to engage in mainstream schooling.  We were in favour but with strong caveats – our first preference is a merger with Haysholm.”

Ms McTaggert added that James McFarlane and Haysholm could share a campus site with the mainstream secondary schools “but not a front-door or a roof”.

For Haysholm, Parent Council representative Christina Larsen said the school would be happy to merge with James McFarlane in a stand-alone facility, but noted that the Council’s proposal was for children with additional support needs – some with severe and complex conditions – to be accommodated within the same building as a mainstream secondary school with around 1,500 pupils.  Ms Larsen explained that Haysholm parents had been told by representatives of the Council that the special needs provision would be housed at the corner of the proposed Three Towns campus building, which, she pointed out, meant the facility “would have two internal walls shared with the mainstream school, and outside areas would be overlooked, exposing children to possible bullying and mocking”.

Christina Larsen concluded, “All [Haysholm] parents are against this merger.”  She then urged councillors, “Please vote no.”

Representing Auchenharvie Academy Parent Council, Veron Maneely and Nicola McPherson set-out why 85% of Stevenston respondents to the Council’s public consultation had opposed a merger.

Ms Maneely said, “The merger would remove facilities from Stevenston and would duplicate them next to St Matthew’s Academy.  The Council talk about creating a community hub, but Stevenston would lose its community hub.  Stevenston businesses would be affected and house prices could fall if the town no longer had a secondary school.”

The Parent Council rep then raised the issue of North Ayrshire Council encouraging children to walk to school by promoting ‘safe walking routes’, but added, “There are no safe walking routes from Stevenston to Ardrossan, they don’t exist.  Stevenston children would have to walk up to 2.8-miles, through two towns and into a third.”

Nicola McPherson highlighted the very successful Community Sports Club run at Auchenharvie Academy on Saturdays, pointing out few Stevenston children would be prepared to travel to Ardrossan if the facility was lost.  Ms McPherson indicated the club had between 60 and 80 young members taking part every week in activities such as gymnastics, athletics and dance.

Ardrossan Academy was represented by Parent Council members Francis Stewart, Donna Watson and Gloria Syme. 

Ms Stewart expressed sympathy for Auchenharvie parents, noting that if the proposal was for Ardrossan Academy to close and a new school to be built in Stevenston, “We would be saying the same thing.”

In response to the Council’s public consultation, 56% of people associated with Ardrossan Academy opposed the merger plan, even though the new facility would have been built in Ardrossan.  However, Gloria Syme cautioned that if the merger did not go ahead, she feared it would be a “missed opportunity”, with the Council “throwing good money after bad” in maintaining the current buildings at Auchenharvie and Ardrossan.

Parent Council representatives then took questions from SNP Cabinet members – principally from Education portfolio-holder Cllr Tony Gurney – before Cllr Willie Gibson, Leader of the Council, said he wanted to emphasise that, contrary to the opinion of some, he and his colleagues were listening to the views expressed by the public.  Cllr Gibson then called for a recess in order that Cabinet members could consider and discuss the issues raised in relation to the proposal to merge the four local schools.  SNP councillors then left the meeting.

Fifteen minutes later Cabinet members returned and Cllr Gibson said, “I’d like to thank everyone for waiting.

“I’m listening to the people.  I’ve heard what has been said today and I’ve read the responses to the public consultation.  I’m not comfortable with the proposal, and this Cabinet will not be proceeding with this proposal.”

As Parent Council representatives looked at each other, apparently struggling to take-in the fact they had saved their schools, Willie Gibson asked the member with responsibility for Education, Cllr Tony Gurney, to officially move a Motion stating the Cabinet’s new position.  Cllr Gurney said, “I thank the Parent Councils – I was impressed by the representations they made today.  I move that Cabinet agrees not to proceed with the proposal [to merge Ardrossan Academy, Auchenharvie Academy, Haysholm School and James McFarlane School].”

Speaking after the meeting, Tony Gurney said, “Following the response to the consultation, we felt it appropriate to invite representatives from each of the schools to speak to us directly and we listened closely to what they had to say.

“Unfortunately, we have been unable to persuade the majority of people of the opportunities the new school would have created.  We have decided, therefore, not to proceed with the merger.

“We now require to take a little time to reflect and consider alternative proposals for the schools in the Three Towns and also in respect of our special schools.”

Council Leader Willie Gibson added, “This decision reflects the Cabinet’s commitment to listening to what people have to say about services in their area.

“We have responded to the opinions and concerns expressed and will now continue our dialogue with parents, pupils and other stakeholders on how we will provide world class education for young people in North Ayrshire.”

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