The Eskdale Saga: Death Of A School
- an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, explaining why the former Chair of the Board of Governors had to be axed at all costs – and the motive behind his ousting.
[In this article, I hope to provide the basis of a one-stop resource for those interested in examining the steps by which NYCC’s (intended) closure of Eskdale School was plotted and implemented, identifying the major players in a premeditated agenda focussed not on education, but on filthy lucre and unashamed empire-building. As a resource, it is subject to augmentation and revision.]
I am not qualified to voice an opinion on the merits, or demerits, of the plan to close Eskdale School.
However, as an elector I am qualified to scrutinise local government actions, to the best of my ability, in order to satisfy myself that the conduct of our paid public servants has been beyond reproach. I am also at liberty to form opinions drawn from my findings and express those opinions freely, in the public domain. The ensuing article comprises facts (as supported by the public record, official correspondence and witness testimony) and opinions derived from a logical interpretation of those facts. Please bear that in mind. Thank you.
Parents, children, alumni and teachers of Eskdale School are not the only members of the Whitby community to have been shaken by the announcement last Thursday 13th January 2016 that the School’s days, if North Yorkshire County Council ‘s intentions are to be made manifest, are numbered. Eskdale School is expected to close.
County Councillor Joe PLANT [Con.] (Steonshalh) has been conspicuously absent from this particular debate.
But Governors, former Governors, Councillors and form teachers – even those who knew very clearly which way the wind was blowing – have been expressing a range of reactions along the spectrum of ‘deeply disappointed’ to ‘morally outraged’; ‘furious’, even ‘murderous’. And I am quoting.
News that NYCC was forcing Eskdale’s hand came (to some) out of the blue. The Stokoe Media Facebook page (platform of Jon STOKOE – formerly the very popular editor of the Whitby Gazette) was the first to break the news in the public domain, at 6:09pm on Thursday, not long after the meeting closed.
My first intimation came in the form of two messages transmitted as attendees left the meeting:
- “Just to let you know – KP has got his way – Eskdale will cease to exist from Sept 2016 and the building will have students until CCW can accommodate them on the other sites when it will be sold off as building land. We were told this evening – our governing body reckon we will all be ok – patronising tw*ts”.
- “Letter goes to parents tomorrow, but CCW staff and us were told tonight!! So in public domain – no confidentiality clause on it! Bob McGovern – deputy chair of Governors (pathetic chair of governors – Sue Verill, who replaced Mike, was there but couldn’t run the meeting – what does that say about the governing body?) told us that Pete Dwyer had said NYCC would use their powers of intervention to make us federate if we weren’t prepared to ‘amalgamate’ (what’s the actual difference there?). He said that the Eskdale site would be sold off to reinvest money into education in Whitby. However, NYCC own site so will simple go back into their coffers and no guarantee where the money will eventually go!!! They reckon they have done it because of poor Ofsted but as most of the issues in that Ofsted were down to a poor Head, a do-as-you-are told deputy and an incredibly weak governing body who barely have a brain cell between them… Staff who underperformed had had issues for a while so the blame was down to poor management and quality control! Eskdale was outstanding until Sue Whelan got the job!!!”
The grapevine spreads swiftly in Whitby. At first, Jon STOKOE was criticised for breaking the news ahead of more orthodox channels – apparently students using social-media had become aware before their parents, and some parents thought this ‘inappropriate’. The reaction was immediate and highly vocal. Thankfully, it soon gravitated to consideration of the wider long-term ramifications.
But the abiding impression from studying many of the social-media forums is that a vast majority of Whitby people outside of local government and education circles (and more than a few inside) hold Eskdale School very dear to their hearts – a friend of the family for three generations. One experienced adminstrator expressed this very cogently on Facebook:
The ‘official’ line is that a decision will be taken by Executive County Councillor Arther BARKER [Con.] (Swale division), on 9th February 2016, on whether or not an (inevitably weighted) consultation will take place.
The last time I heard from Arthur was on 8th July 2014, when he told me that he was looking forward to having a coffee with me the next time he came over to Whitby. I am still waiting.
So I conclude that a man from the other end of the County, who seldom comes to Whitby and seldom engages with Whitby people, will decide on future educational prospects for the town, no doubt in accordance with his Officers’ carefully enunciated wishes. What a system!
I hope that Arthur will drop by for that coffee first; else I will have little confidence in his competence, without the benefit of local input, to decide. (Come to Whitby, Arthur. I will mark your card).
The formal closure of Eskdale School will require a Statutory Proposal, as took place when Caedmon School closed under federation with Whitby Community College and Caedmon College Whitby:
The ‘official’ statements regarding the proposed Eskdale closure can be found at the foot of this page; there are some striking inconsistencies and contradictions – which I hope will not escape Arthur BARKER’s attention.
The Battle Lines
The point in contention is that many believe immovably in retaining Eskdale School’s identity as a caring, smaller-scale choice – distinct from, but complementary to, the more corporate style of Caedmon College Whitby (CCW). The emphasis here is on the word “choice”.
The opposing force to this would-be immovable object is NYCC’s Corporate Director: Children & Young People’s Services Pete DWYER, ably assisted by CCW Headteacher Keith PRYTHERCH, whose joint wish it is to force upon Eskdale ‘amalgamation’ with CCW (‘federation’, by any other name?), where extra facilities would need to be created so Eskdale students could be ‘absorbed’ into CCW as soon as possible throughout the 2016/17 school year, all with a view to demolishing Eskdale (ideally, as soon as possible, but not later than August 2017), then offering the site to housing developers (already waiting in the wings).
Make no mistake, this is about money – and ‘power’ – not learning and personal development.
Nevertheless, some support the proposal; some do not.
What concerns me is whether or not the process has been conducted fairly, transparently and in accordance with the letter and spirit of the law. In my view, it has not.
The Main Players
The principle desiderata for Pete DWYER, who, the documentary evidence shows, has long favoured scrapping Eskdale (thereby creating an enlarged CCW), are relatively obvious:
(1) One-school solution assures ‘economy of scale’ operational savings;
(2) Capital revenue; Eskdale site liberated for sale and subsequent housing development;
(3) Rationalisation/consolidation of Governing Bodies.
For him, this plan is all about (1) saving money, (2) making money, and (3) consolidating control.
In my view, the attractions of the proposals for Keith PRYTHERCH, Headteacher at CCW, are also readily apparent:
(A) Keith PRYTHERCH is personally ambitious; he is the force behind federation (of as many schools in the area as possible). More pupils = more teachers = substantial increase in salary (and pension) for the Headteacher and his Deputies, commensurate with the perceived increase in administrative responsibilities. And salary = prestige.
(B) Keith PRYTHERCH is acknowledged by some to be a skilful administrator, but no academic (he started his career as a PE teacher); and not inspirational. Primarily a mnager, not an educator. He is reputedly not an easy man to deal with; staff and former staff have described him variously along the spectrum “inflexible” through “despotic”, via “control freak”. Driven, but not a team player. A go-getter.
For him, this plan is all about (A) making money, and (B) consolidating control.
And I am encouraged to believe that Pete and Keith have been spending a good deal of time together on the golf course. Of course, it is possible that they assiduously avoid discussion of educational matters on tee or green, or bunkers inbetween; theirs may be a holy alliance.
The “shock/horror” reaction to Thursday’s announcement is, in fact, the measure of how little Whitby people have been allowed to know about the chain of events leading up to it.
But there is quite a back-story. The writing had been on the whiteboard for some years.
In large degree, the most difficult obstacle for DWYER and PRYTHERCH to overcome was the Chair of Eskdale Board of Governors (from 2009 until October 2014) Mike WARD, whose commitment to Eskdale – and to Whitby’s children as yet unborn – has been acknowledged far longer than that. His Open Letter is available here, along with the ‘official’ statements from the powers that be – whose obfuscation and contradiction stands in sharp contrast to the honesty and directness that emanates from every line that Mike has written.
The first openly public heads-up that machinations were going on behind the scenes at Eskdale came in October 2014 when then-Chair of Governors Mike WARD (who, for the umpteenth time, is not even remotely related to me) was summarily and unlawfully ousted after nine years on the Board by Headteacher Sue WHELAN, apparently without higher authorisation, and on the discriminatory grounds that Mike had joined a political party – for the first time in his life.
Sue WHELAN’s intervention was such an outrageous departure from procedure that I felt obliged, on 27th October 2014, to lodge a Formal Complaint with NYCC’s Head of Legal, Barry KHAN. I published the story here on the Enquirer the following week:
- “Political Hatchet-Job 2015: Double Discrimination” – (9th November 2014)
An almighty row ensued and on 13th November 2014, the story broke in the national newspapers who had serendipitously picked up on my 9th November article. Here are a few URL-links:
- The Telegraph – School governor told to resign ‘because he had joined Ukip’
- The Guardian – North Yorkshire school governor who joined Ukip ‘forced out’, party claims
- The Daily Mail – Chairman of school governors ‘forced to quit’ after joining Ukip because party’s polices are ‘against it’s ethos’
- The Daily Express – Outrage after school governor FORCED to resign because he is a member of Ukip
- The Independent – School governor told to resign ‘because he had joined Ukip’
But the nationals barely scratched the surface of a story of intrigue and manipulation that has still not reached the wider Whitby public:
- “Eskdale UKIP Governor – Dramatic New Twists!” – (14th November 2014)
- “Eskdale: A View From Afar” (Letter to the Editor from Ray TOLLEY – 14th November 2014)
- “The Eskdale Fiasco – Cui Bono” (Letter to the Editor from Cllr. Ian HAVELOCK – 16th November 2014)
- “Anti-UKIP Discrimination” (Letter to the Editor from PPC Chris GALLACHER – 17th November 2014)
- “Local Rag Prints Letter re Eskdale School Row” – (Letter to the Whitby Gazette from James WHITE – 21st November 2014)
- “Eskdale Governor Row: The Cover-Up Begins” – (23rd November 2014)
- “School Governor ‘Hatchet-Job’ Investigation – Outcome” – (15th February 2015)
That final URL-link deals with the absence of a proper investigation into how Mike WARD was ousted and identifies the methodology by which that ousting was accomplished. It is a mechanism that has been successfully deployed before; see the Darlington & Stockton Times February 2014 coverage of Richmond School and the Northern Echo May 2014 report – the Bugstoto entry in the public comments section is also revealing.
My “Hatchet-Job” article describes how the Eskdale Board of Governors, under first ‘Acting’, later replacement Chair of the Board of Governors Sue VERRILL, first promised me a diligent independent investigation, then refused to disclose the outcome of that investigation. Why?
Apparently, Sue VERRILL is not familiar with the technique of redacting personal information so that an as transparent disclosure as possible may be made, within the constraints of the Data Protection Act 1998, in the public interest. The truth is that she has been ‘advised’ to totally bury the ins-and-outs of the conspiracy to oust Mike WARD. Such wilful secrecy in public affairs disgusts me.
The above-mentioned article also reproduces an email to me from Barry KHAN, NYCC Deputy Chief Exec, Head of Legal & Democratic Services & Monitoring Office, dated Christmas Eve 2014. The correspondence concerns details of my Formal Complaint against Pete DWYER and NYCC CEO Richard FLINTON on grounds of breaching their statutory duties to Mike WARD.
The sharp end of Barry’s email reads:
As you know I am conducting an investigation into your complaint so I will respond in full when I have concluded that investigation in the new year.
However I do think it is appropriate for me to answer the three questions that you have raised directly in the interim:
I have found no evidence to state that County Hall entertained a visit from the Caedmon College Headteacher on the 10th October. There is no record of his attendance at County Hall in the registration book and no-one has a record of meeting him on that day.
Further I have found no evidence that a Council employee gave advice to the Headteacher on the 10th October with regard to this specific matter.
Finally, there are no definitive plans created by the County Council to sell and develop the site of Eskdale School by the County Council – there is no intention for the County Council to do this.
The line which we should grant our closest attention is this one:
- “Finally, there are no definitive plans created by the County Council to sell and develop the site of Eskdale School by the County Council – there is no intention for the County Council to do this”. [24/12/14]
“No intention” . . .
My Formal Complaints – crucial to eliciting the truth behind Mike WARD’s eviction – appear to have been abandoned. There is no will transparently to publish the outcomes; rather, a resolute determination to keep them secret.
Yet I have already quoted Barry KHAN (above), from 24th December 2014, stating:
- “As you know I am conducting an investigation into your complaint so I will respond in full when I have concluded that investigation in the new year”.
That was over a year ago. Following a gentle reminder from me, BARRY KHAN then wrote, on 19th February 2015:
- “I am conscious that I have not formally responded to you about the Complaint you have made against the Council regarding Eskdale and I will ensure that you get a response next week or that we discuss the matter at our next meeting”.
A year later, I am still waiting to be provided with the Decision Notices (the outcomes/verdicts) of my Formal Complaints – and it does not cast a very good light on Barry KHAN that when I spoke to him on 1st December 2015, he promised me the Decision Notices by the end of the year (2015, that is). In the light of Thursday’s announcement, one can only speculate about the explanation for this further unwarranted delay.
“What was my Complaint, exactly?”
That collusion appeared to have taken place to engineer the removal of Mike WARD from the process, and that knowledge of this collusion appeared to extend all the way to the Chief Executive. I demanded a full and diligent investigation into Mike WARD’s dismissal. I provided copious evidence supporting the need for an investigation. If an investigation has taken place, its outcome is being concealed from me – and thereby from the wider public.
Returning to the period of time during which closure plans were first being hatched, all the way up to the confirmation announcement last Thursday, we must now consider Barry KHAN’s assurance that NYCC had “no intention” (as of Christmas Eve 2014) “to close the School and sell and develop the site of Eskdale” in a new light.
Because I can confirm that precisely this desired outcome was under discussion, behind closed doors, as long ago as 2009, when the Academies Bill was making its way through Parliament. Following the 2010 general election, LEAs began developing a strategy to preserve assets as Academy applications began, inevitably, to trickle in. (The Academies Act 2010 came into effect on 27th July 2010).
Secrets are hard to keep. In September 2013, a private meeting was held in Whitby between Pete DWYER and the Heads of the (then) three schools, plus two Chairs and one Deputy Chair from each of the respective Boards of Governors. Two of those present have confirmed to me that the option of closing Eskdale and selling the land was included in Pete DWYER’s presentation.
And I have liaised with WTC Councillors who, like me, clearly recall that at a meeting on 29th January 2014 (at which I was present), Pete DWYER, in response to a question (as I recall) from Councillor Ian HAVELOCK, admitted that the option of closing Eskdale and selling the land was also under consideration.
Demonstrably, the potential closure of Eskdale has been mooted many times before and since Barry KHAN assured me (Christmas Eve 2014) that no such plans existed.
- Finally, there are no definitive plans created by the County Council to sell and develop the site of Eskdale School by the County Council – there is no intention for the County Council to do this .[24/12/14]
What are we to conclude? That Barry KHAN disingenuously, and with some foresight, slipped in the word “definitive” to cover himself if later pressed to explain?
Or that Barry KHAN had deliberately lied to me in his email of 24/12/14?
I rather think not. I know Barry quite well by now and I would be astonished to learn that he had wilfully misled me. I am confident of his integrity. So I believe that Barry was telling the truth as he knew it. But Barry KHAN started at NYCC late in this particular game – in April 2014 – and he may easily have had no detailed knowledge of plans within Pete DWYER’s department prior to investigating my Formal Complaint.
However, in the course of his investigation of my Formal Complaints against Pete DWYER and Richard FLINTON and the machinations behind the enforced resignation of Mike WARD, Barry KHAN must have interrogated Pete DWYER in meticulous detail. As Corporate Director: Children & Young People’s Services, Pete DWYER was Barry’s primary source of information regarding plans for Eskdale. If Barry then believed that there were no plans for closure/development, that information must have come to him primarily from Pete DWYER, possibly amongst others.
But we have seen that this is false information. There were plans. Long-standing plans.
So if we discard the conclusion that Barry KHAN lied to me – then we are left with the strong suspicion (amounting, on the preponderance of probabilities, to near certainty) that Pete DWYER lied to him.
Who is the liar? That will become a key question.
CCW Academy Bid
On 1st April 2015, the Whitby Gazette announced that CCW had plans to achieve Academy status and consultation with parents would soon take place. Richard SIMPSON (Chair of the CCW Governors) set out the school’s rationale. The article attracted only four comments from readers. They certainly provide some insight.
And when Eskdale announced, in early July 2015, that the School would be taking students in the 11-16 age-range, the Todmorden Gazette (!) quoted the Board of Governors thus:
- “We do not accept that federating with Caedmon College will automatically drive up standards and from our recent meeting with the Caedmon College governors and Headteacher it seems that if we joined them in a federation they would require the closure of the Eskdale site as the way to achieve cost savings.”
So much for any element of surprise on the part of the insiders.
However, rumours began to circulate, over the Christmas break, that CCW’s Academy application may have been derailed by Eskdale’s age-range expansion to 11-16, from 8th September 2015, thus reducing student numbers (and therefore, income) at CCW. The true status of CCW’s Academy bid remains unclear.
Whether or not these rumours held any substance, Eskdale began the first term of 2016 with some very short-notice postponements/cancellations of meetings, announced by email and twitter, e.g.:
- “Tonight’s Y9 options meeting is cancelled. Sorry for short notice, a letter will be sent tomorrow via email or hard copy. From Mrs Whelan.”
- “The Parents Information Meeting due to take place tonight (Thurs 7th) has been postponed. We will advise you of new date in due course. Thank you.”
Clearly, something was in the air.
Clearly, it was time to start moving things along; a school cannot be closed from one day to the next.
It is important to understand the consequences, should both the ‘amalgamation’ of Eskdale with CCW and the CCW Academy bid succeed.
If CCW (and its ‘satellites’) ever attains Academy status, it will cease to be funded through the LEA, but it is my understanding that that saving to the LEA (NYCC) will be offset by the fact that the ‘asset’ that is Eskdale School must be transferred to the Academy lock-stock-&-barrel, either without cost or on a 125-year lease, at a peppercorn rent.
A schematic overview of the process is available here:
Clearly, this is an unattractive proposition to the LEA; far better, the ‘amalgamation’ and subsequent transferral of Eskdale students to CCW while it remains an LEA School would facilitate the sale of land valuable for building development, not least because of its convenient proximity to the much-promoted Whitby Business Park.
But that is if – and only if – CCW does not become an Academy. Timing could be crucial.
Small wonder that Pete DWYER favours the closure of Eskdale (and the sale of the site) with CCW remaining an LEA School.
For the past three years, perhaps more, CCW Head Keith PRYTHERCH has been developing a relationship with the David Ross Foundation and the David Ross Education Trust (DRET) – whose web-site, ironically, tells us that they “strongly believe that parents should have choice and diversity” – and who are on the record as looking for a presence in Whitby. In fact, an approach was made to Eskdale a couple of years ago.
Trusts are known to have a territorial approach. An independent (and competing) Eskdale School would have been a blot on the Esk Valley landscape for DRET. But with Eskdale gone, CCW could present Whitby and the Esk Valley to DRET as a wall-to-wall educational monopoly of a discrete and coherent geographical region.
It becomes clear that the erstwhile Chair of the Eskdale Governors – Mike WARD, whose staunch commitment to Eskdale’s independence and the importance of retaining choice, in principle, and ‘small-versus-big’, ‘hands-on-versus-streamlined’, in practice, presented the only major obstacle to this master plan achieving fruition.
Mike WARD had to go.
And without Mike WARD, it looks like the masters of the universe are just about home free. The spoils are already being mentally divided – and savoured.
Pete DWYER salvages a few million for the NYCC coffers.
Keith PRYTHERCH’s salary (and profile) goes into turbo-mode.
As for the present Head of Eskdale, Sue WHELAN, rumour has it – and even without rumour, one might reasonably speculate – that she may have been guaranteed one of two Deputy Headships at CCW, if (or when) ‘amalgamation’ is achieved – and Eskdale is razed to the ground. Aside from taking the hatchet to Mike WARD’s Chairship, she has reportedly dominated a weak Board of Governors with a docile Chair – Sue VERRILL – and, in short, generally lubricated the Eskdale end of the deal. Perhaps she will soon be able to cash in her Brownie points?
And the Board? The ‘best’ (the most compliant) of the present Eskdale Governors will be cherry-picked; i.e. the nodding-donkeys will be co-opted and the rest let out to pasture.
Everyone’s a winner.
Except those with a profound loyalty, head and heart, to the unique identity of Eskdale School and its joy-of-learning core values.
It is likely to be useless to oppose these manoeuvres with nothing more than petitions and protests. The LEA has been striving for this for many years; they will not be deterred by the massed ranks of the common man.
It is likely to be equally useless to write articulate objections and/or complaints to the County Council. The process is, by design, opaque and obstructive. And, as we have seen, teeth-grindingly slow – slow enough to be overtaken by events.
Judging by my meticulously detailed Formal Complaints against Pete DWYER and Richard FLINTON – lost in limbo for over a year now – it is useless to raise any kind of reasoned challenge.
Nevertheless, the arcane and recondite hierarchical labyrinth that we know as the Local Education Authority does have an Achilles heel; it is only as strong as its weakest link: “Procedural impropriety”. Wrong-doing.
That must be addressed. That cannot, with impunity, be ignored.
“Procedural impropriety”. You or I would call it “loading the dice”.
There has been zero transparency throughout this Machiavellian process. The task before Whitby now is to demand full accountability.
I believe that there has been much “procedural impropriety”. I believe that I can demostrate as much and I intend to have it addressed.
So reports of the death of Eskdale School may just conceivably have been exaggerated. But if death it is, then let us be absolutely clear – it is murder.
One positive thought to consider: might the way forward for Eskdale be to become a Free School? (That would entail formal closure – ideally, at the beginning of the summer break – followed by a re-opening on the existing site, albeit under a new constitution – ideally in time for the start of the Autumn semester).
A progressive Headteacher and an astute Chair of Governors could make much of an opportunity like that. But where will Eskdale find another Headteacher like Mark TAYLOR? Or another Chair like Mike WARD?
My gratitude to the Governors and former Governors who contributed
to this knowledge-base and reviewed my manuscript. Thank you all.