Eskdale School: Another Brick In The Wall
- an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, examining the parts of the Eskdale jigsaw that other publications do not reach – much less piece together.
[This article is intended to supplement my 19th January 2016 article. It is speculative, not definitive, and comprises opinions derived from incomplete access to ‘official’ documentation]
Since the publication of my article “The Eskdale Saga: Death Of A School” (on 19th January 2016), I have received scores of requests to expand upon the serious issues raised. The present article should be understood as an addendum to, and an integral part of, the above-mentioned article.
The publication of a Letter to the Editor by Mike WARD, the unlawfully ousted former Chair of the Eskdale School Board of Governors, has elicited many further enquiries from members of the public who are concerned that the closure of Eskdale School (and subsequent sale of the site) has long been a ‘done deal‘.
Majority opinion seems to be that on 9th February 2016, County Councillor Arthur BARKER, Executive Member for Children & Young Peoples Services (CYPS) at North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) will exercise his long-held a predetermination to ‘rubber stamp’ the proposal, as recommended by Pete DWYER, Corporate Director of Children & Young Peoples’ Services, to close Eskdale School.
On 24th January 2016, I wrote to Cllr Arthur BARKER, seeking his assurances that he holds no predetermination (which would disqualify him from his role). Certainly, he has favoured a one-school solution for Whitby for some considerable period of time. With the erstwhile Caedmon School (CS) already subsumed under the Caedmon College Whitby (CCW) ‘federation’, it is self-evident that the demise of Eskdale School as an independent entity is at the heart of Councillor BARKER’s vision for Whitby – and has been throughout.
Here is Arthur’s response:
My response to County Councillor Arthur BARKER was too long to include here, so I quote only the salient passage regarding predetermination:
“I remain unclear as to how your past support for the proposal could have resulted from you having no opinion, since you would hardly have been so rash as to express support without first forming an opinon. It follows, then, that you did have an opinion, and that your opinion led you to to make the informed decision to support the proposal. In my view, the forming of an opinion in the past, followed by the explicit expression of that opinion in public statements, also in the past, is indistinguishable from a predetermination. You may argue otherwise, but I hope you will be mindful that matters of law are often finely drawn and much may depend upon fine distinctions, should the process ever be challenged.”
In my view, County Councillor Arthur BARKER has a clear duty to recuse himself from the decision process.
My correspondence with Arthur BARKER can be viewed in full here:[County Councillor Arthur BARKER correspondence]
How has the intention to close Eskdale been so decisively progressed since Mike WARD (who has always been resolute in his determination to retain Eskdale School’s independence – and was robustly supported in that ambition by his Board) was conveniently side-lined by Sue WHELAN in October 2014?
And what has changed to allow Pete DWYER to wave the threat of “intervention” at the Board of Governors?
The Eskdale Board of Governors
Until just over a year ago, the only mandated force opposing the DWYER/BARKER juggernaut has been the Eskdale Board of Governors. Without former Chair Mike WARD at the helm, the Board has proved itself to be no longer willing or able to mount an effective opposition in the face of what can only be described as an ultimatum.
How can the once-adamant position of the Board have been so swiftly diluted to the point of docile capitulation?
And what influence has Sue WHELAN, Headteacher (and, in virtue of that position, also a member of the Board) exerted on the direction and mind-set of the Board as a whole – if a membership filling only 9 of the 14 available seats can reasonably be characterised as ‘whole’? Why has the Board permitted itself to be so under-manned?
To answer these questions, we need to examine the independence of the Board – beginning with its composition:
The Board of Governors comprises:
- Staff Governors (2) – Sue WHELAN and Paul DIXON
- Parent Governors (4) – Sue VERRILL [Chair] and Jacinth SIMPSON (2 vacancies)
- Co-opted Governors (7) – Amanda DAYNES, Bob McGOVERN, David COX and Trevor PARKER (three vacancies)
- Local Authority Governor (1) – Jane MORTIMER
- Associate Member if appointed – (none)
Those shown in red type in the above figure are all dependent, in one degree or another, on maintaining the approval of the authorities – on that side, so to speak, is their bread buttered . . .
Please note that Mr. D. BRADLEY (David BRADLEY), listed above the full list of Governors as one of two Vice Chairs, is a former and long-standing Headteacher at Eskdale School. (He preceded Keith PRYTHERCH, who preceded Mark TAYLOR, who, in turn, preceded Sue WHELAN). However, his name is not included in the full list of Governors on the web-site, nor is there a ‘potted biography’ for him. In any case, he is not listed as having attended the fateful 6th January 2016 meeting.
None of these Governors has declared, on the web-page, her/his direct pecuniary interest contingent upon her/his direct or indirect pecuniary relationship with NYCC (a legal requirement) – nor is there any suggestion they did so at the 6th January meeting, at which they appear to have capitulated to an ultimatum from NYCC.
According to the draft Minutes, the following nine Governors were present at that meeting:
- Sue VERRILL (Chair)
- Bob McGovern (Deputy Chair)
- Sue WHELAN
- Trevor PARKER
- Paul DIXON
- Jane MORTIMER
- Jacinth SIMPSON
- Amanda DAYNES
- David COX
Of these, only Sue VERRILL and Jacinth SIMPSON were not compromised by the non-declaration of a disclosable pecuniary interest.
The Meeting was minuted by Clerk to the Governors Mr Peter GEER.
The involvement of any NYCC-remunerated member in any decision taken by the Board following the proposal/ultimatum put to the Board by NYCC Officers entails a conflict of interest on her/his part, and she/he should have left the meeting.
Which raises the question of quoracy. A democratically constituted public body is required to have a certain minimum numbers of members present in order lawfully to conduct its business. This is known as “having a quorum” or “being quorate“.
With a complement of only nine members – or 64%, as compared with the constitutional full complement of fourteen members – and with seven of those nine (or 78%) in some degree in the thrall of the local authority, it is fair to say that the Board has become a push-over – a nodding donkey fronted by a paper cub (no tiger) – since, by the most generous reckoning, six of the present nine Governors (perhaps ten, if David BRADLEY really is a Governor) have an undeclared conflict of interest which, according to the regulations, MUST disqualify them from taking part in Eskdale’s decision-making process, leaving only three (four, with David BRADLEY) – less than a legal quorum, which is 50% of the Governors in post and in attendance at any given meeting.
Since all nine were present when the ‘amalgamation’/closure decision was made, that 50% entails rounding four-point-five up to five – there is, of course, no such thing as nought-point-five of a Governor!
It would appear, then, that this is a Governing Board that was not, at that meeting, legally competent (in virtue of its inquoracy) to have taken a decision in favour of (or against) the ‘amalgamation’/closure of Eskdale School with CCW – and this fact alone renders the decision null and void.
Why has the Board forsworn the opportunity to enlist five additional members who have no pecuniary dependence on NYCC?
Is it really credible that a man of Pete DWYER’s experience and resources could be unaware of all this? I believe not. But, as we shall see, the abandonment of that meeting would have been unhelpful to Pete DWYER in the extreme.
Those who believe that the Board (as reconstituted on 24th February 2015 – i.e. after the removal of Mike WARD) has been innately incapable of pressing the wishes and best interests of students, parents and teachers have, in this inquoracy issue, a powerful argument – an argument that perhaps should supplement the very well-supported petition when it wings its way to the DfE Secretary of State?
The Eskdale Chair of Governors – Sue VERRILL
How and why has Sue VERRILL condoned the entire Board’s non-declaration of interests? Is the Chair of Governors competent to fulfill her role? Does she fully understand exactly what her role entails?
This document is the statutory guidance on the constitution of Governing bodies. I quote:
About this guidance
This is statutory guidance from the Department for Education. This means that governing bodies (including governing bodies of federations) and local authorities must have regard to it when carrying out duties relating to the constitution of governing bodies in maintained schools.”
“Must” – a legally binding word.
In terms of Governor details and interests, at articles 25, 26 and 27, it states:
Publication of Governor’s Details and the Register of Interests
- Governors hold an important public office and their identity should be known to their school and wider communities. In the interests of transparency, a governing body should publish on its website up-to-date details of its governance arrangements in a readily accessible form***[see below].
This should include:
- the structure and remit of the governing body and any committees, and the full names of the chair of each;
- for each governor who has served at any point over the past 12 months:
- – their full names, date of appointment, term of office, date they stepped down (where applicable), who appointed them (in accordance with the governing body’s instrument of government),
- – relevant business and pecuniary interests (as recorded in the register of interests) including:
- – governance roles in other educational institutions;
- – any material interests arising from relationships between governors or relationships between governors and school staff (including spouses, partners and close relatives); and
- – their attendance record at governing body and committee meetings over the last academic year.
- Governing bodies should also publish this information for associate members, making clear whether they have voting rights on any of the committees to which they have been appointed.
- Governing bodies should make it clear in their code of conduct that this information will be published on their governors and any associate members. Any governor failing to provide information to enable the governing body to fulfil their responsibilities may be in breach of the code of conduct and as a result be bringing the governing body into disrepute. In such cases the governing body should consider suspending the governor.
[*** “Readily accessible” means that the information should be on a web-page, without the need to download or open a separate document ***]
The Eskdale Governors seem to be unaware of all of this.
[MEMO TO SUE VERRILL: Where is your Code of Conduct? Where is your (required) ‘publication scheme’ – here. I cannot locate them on the web-site. You clearly have a strong input from the LEA. Is it really the case that no NYCC Officer has advised you of your legal responsibilities in terms of your statutory duties and general accountability to the community?]
I have engaged in correspondence with Sue VERRILL in the past (which I have recounted here) and which I have characterised as “an object lesson in evasion, secrecy, unaccountability and outright bullshit”.
Her response was the antithesis of transparency – she refused to provide the findings of a so-called ‘independent’ investigation into my Formal Complaint regarding the parts played by Pete DWYER and Richard FLINTON in the unlawful ousting of Mike WARD, on the basis that they “contain a large amount of personal information (and) in line with our statutory obligations the report, its findings and recommendations will remain confidential to the governors”.
This was, and is, wholly unacceptable because the protagonists – Mike WARD and Sue WHELAN – were already widely-known; the facts of the case were in the public domain and in most national newspapers; Mike WARD raised no objection to publication.
What was there to hide?
Or, to put it bluntly, who was Sue VERRILL protecting?
And who pulled Sue WHELAN’s strings in the first place, and why has that been withheld from the public?
The Eskdale School Headteacher – Sue WHELAN
Earlier in this article, I posed the question:
- “What influence has Headteacher Sue WHELAN exerted on the direction and mind-set of the Board as a whole?”
Let me now pose a complementary question:
- “What influence has Headteacher Sue WHELAN exerted on the direction and mind-set of the School as a whole – as a place of learning?”
The official yardstick – and allegedly the most reliably impartial arbitrator – is the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED):
Since Sue WHELAN’s appointment in 2011 (when the School carried the rating “Outstanding”), four out of five categories now “require improvement”. That is an ignominious descent from “Outstanding” which any Headteacher would have found difficult to achieve, even deliberately.
But let us not forget that Sue WHELAN has made one memorable and highly influential contribution; she exceeded her authority to enable the removal of Pete DWYER’s major obstacle in the plan to ‘terminate’ Eskdale School – former Chair of Governors Mike WARD. Is it really conceivable she did this without taking advice (or direction) from NYCC? I hold other information.
The Corporate Director: Children & Young Peoples’ Services – Pete DWYER
So, what of the role of NYCC’s CYPS directorate? Pete DWYER is central to this situation. Many emails and letters to County Councillor Arthur BARKER have received responses from Pete DWYER. The Officer’s Report recommending the ‘amalgamation’/closure scenario to County Councillor Arthur BARKER will be presented by Pete DWYER. Make no mistake, Pete DWYER is the man in charge of this operation.
On 21st January 2016, when the Enquirer published “Eskdale School – Past, Present & Future”, a Letter to the Editor from Mike WARD, Sue VERRILL’s letter to parents/cares was included at the foot of the page.
Having read Sue VERRILL’s letter several times, some things remain slightly disturbing.
In the second paragraph, she advises that:
- “NYCC will address these when they discuss their report with the Executive Member for schools on 9 February and, if he agrees to consult, the consultation documents will set out in greater detail the proposal and the rationale for it.”
Pete DWYER knows that this is not so. See here for the DfE Statutory Guidance, specifically Chapter 5 and the relevant Annexes re School Closure. There is no option for County Councillor Arthur BARKER to decide whether to consult or not – for closure to proceed, there MUST be a consultation.
There is a statutory 5-stage process which is outlined clearly in the above document. NYCC must know this, so why have they advised the Eskdale Governors otherwise?
One other phrase from Sue VERRILL’s letter stands out:
- “. . . a continued and protracted confrontation with NYCC and the likelihood that they would use their powers of intervention to force a decision would not be good for the school or the community.”
This tells us unequivocally that the Board was forced, under duress, to succumb to an ultimatum imposing ‘amalgamation’ – jump or be pushed – ‘amalgamate’ or be terminated.
So – returning to the meeting of 6th January – was the Board threatened with an IEB ultimatum by NYCC officers? Of course.
And were they, in fact, bullied into agreeing to the proposal? I believe so.
This begs two further questions:
- what are these “powers of intervention” that Pete DWYER wielded so effectively?
- why would Pete DWYER prefer Eskdale to ‘amalgamate’ – to go quietly – when he has rattled the sabre of his “powers of intervention” to close the School anyway? What difference does it make whether the Board complies or Pete DWYER exercises his “powers”?
Schools Causing Concern – Statutory Guidance
Reading the above, on the face of it, I cannot see how a Board could fall into this “powers of intervention” class for simply refusing to kow-tow to NYCC’s orders – but looking at the ultimate “power”, we will see this in due course.
The DfE guidance states:
- “An IEB can be used to accelerate improvement in standards and attainment and provide challenge to the leadership of the school to secure rapid improvement or where there has been a serious breakdown of working relationships within the governing body of the school.”
These “powers of intervention” are, in fact, a statutory duty for the LEA to intervene, as an action of last resort, where either performance standards are seriously compromised or when a Board of Governors is (or can be shown to be – or purported to be) operationally dysfunctional.
If Sue WHELAN favours ‘amalgamation’ with CCW and is a member of the Eskdale Board which strongly dissented, could that divergence of opinion be exploited to warrant “a serious breakdown of working relationships”? Thin, admittedly, particularly since the Headteacher should have played no part whatsoever in the debate or the final decision in virtue of her compromised status as an employee of NYCC. But the twilight zone of misinformation in which Pete DWYER apparently operates, presumably he believes he could present it in a plausible light.
The combination of a poor OFSTED report and the above-mentioned Governance inadequacies could readily be cited – whether correctly or not – to justify an “intervention”.
Ultimately, these “powers of intervention” have a methodology which leads to the creation of an Interim Executive Body (IEB).
An Interim Executive Board (IEB) is an emergency Board of Governors appointed with the express consent of the Secretary of State for a temporary period, in exceptional circumstances, with the specific task of ensuring school improvement.
Had the Eskdale Board of Governors resisted Pete DWYER’s ultimatum, his next move would have been to invoke an Interim Executive Body, who would in due course have faced the same ultimatum. And guess whose call it is to appoint the membership of an IEB? You got it in one – Pete DWYER
A compliant IEB could then be used to submit a Statutory Proposal formally to close the School, as was used to close Caedmon School (CS) pursuant to federation with Whitby Community College (WCC), creating Caedmon College Whitby (CCW):
Forcing Eskdale School first to close, then to ‘amalgamate’ with CCW – whither students and (some) staff will surely migrate – leaves NYCC in possession of the built asset, which it can then demolish, thus liberating the land for sale on the open market for premium housing development – BUT (and this is a BIG BUT) – ONLY if this occurs before CCW achieves Academy status (for which application and consultation took place in spring 2015, and to which I will return, presently).
Either way, liberty to vacate the built asset, bulldoze it and sell off the land was always the inevitable outcome – and was always Pete DWYER’s objective. It is difficult to believe that County Councillor Arthur BARKER could be unaware of all this.
So make no mistake, Pete DWYER’s ‘aspirations’ for Eskdale School (i.e. close it, bulldoze it and sell off the land) were best served by retaining, through duress, the existing docile and compromised Board.
Returning to the present, the Board’s capitulation has allowed Pete DWYER to side-step the IEB stage (which requires the Secretary of State’s permission, remember) and cut directly to closure and sale before CCW can clinch Academy Status. The fact that the ‘amalgamation’ of Eskdale with CCW will improve CCW’s prospects of Academy status is neither here nor there to Pete DWYER (though it most certainly is to Keith PRYTHERCH) – so long as it takes place after Eskdale School, as a built asset, is levelled.
Caedmon College Whitby, Eskdale School and Academy Status
In the absence of any openness on the part of anyone official involved in this saga, we, the public, are left to speculate.
In my recent article “The Eskdale Saga: Death Of A School”, I highlighted the significance of CCW’s Academy consultation/application in relation to the obligation that would fall upon NYCC to hand over to the new Academy the built asset of Eskdale School and to grant a 125-year ‘peppercorn rent’ lease on the land itself. (And why, by the way, would Keith PRYTHERCH favour acquiring a property he has no need to maintain?).
‘Amalgamation’ involves the closure of Eskdale and the ‘migration’ of students to the CCW site. This is a very different animal to ‘federation’, where the schools remain under LEA auspices, on their existing sites and retaining their own identities, but sharing governance and leadership in varying degrees, according to the wishes of the respective Boards.
See here for more detail on Federations, in particular, but also Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) – commonly known as ‘Academy chains’.
Until recently, no-one has talked of ‘amalgamation’, only ‘federation’. Few members of the public are familiar with the term”MAT”.
But with CCW’s recent bid for Academy status and obvious desire to create a MAT here (May 2015) and more specifically the minuted comment “A (CCW) MAT Group Governor had held a positive conversation with the Acting Chair of Eskdale School’s Governing Body; it was hoped that this relationship could be developed further”, and Eskdale’s own historical interest in becoming an Academy, the writing would appear to have been on the wall for NYCC.
Now that the Eskdale ‘amalgamation’ scenario has leaked to the entire population of Whitby and the Esk Valley (and far, far beyond), the true current status of CCW’s Academy bid takes on a new dimension of interest.
The aura of mystery (or secrecy) surrounding CCW’s application for Academy status (consultation announced on 26th March 2015, but listed on the Gov.uk website as applied for on 16th April 2015), has proved most difficult to penetrate.
It has apparently required an exchange of EIGHT emails from a Whitby Town (Parish) Councillor to the Chair of the CCW Governors, Mr Richard SIMPSON, to elicit the somewhat equivocal assertion that:
- “Academy status/any application for this is on hold at the current time.”
This is passing curious, because once an application has been lodged, its status is published on the DfE website as either applied for and rejected, applied for and granted, or pending decision. There is no such status as “on hold”. I believe that the truth is that application has been withdrawn. For the moment.
There is absolutely no advantage to Pete DWYER or Keith PRYTHERCH in it going ahead until after the closure/disposal of Eskdale.
But this in no way prevents CCW lodging a new application – one which includes the ‘amalgamated’ students (and some of the staff) of Eskdale – in the future.
Questions remain outstanding of course, since no-one has ‘come clean’.
What incentive is there for Keith PRYTHERCH/CCW Governors to accede to a delay – which inevitably will allow time for NYCC to liquidate the Eskdale ‘asset’? A future MAT/Academy could itself have forced Eskdale School to close, so why delay?
There are too many potentially unfavourable outcomes for NYCC to risk waiting for the current Academy application to proceed – and possibly succeed. As we have seen, if Pete DWYER wanted to be sure of getting his hands on Eskdale, he would have to operate BEFORE Academisation. By threatening to exercise the very extensive powers that we can see he currently has available – which would be lost in a MAT scenario – Pete DWYER can make it a ‘done deal’.
But why would CCW have withdrawn its Academy application – which plays into Pete DWYER’s hands?
Overall, the whole arrangement smacks of a carefully orchestrated ‘deal’ between Pete DWYER and Keith PRYTHERCH – Pete gets his hands on the land and Keith ends up as Principal of a commercially independent Academy, no longer bound by the salary-scale (or influence) of the LEA (NYCC).
Eskdale School, its students, teachers, parents and Governors (except those who are ‘imported’ into the enlarged CCW Board of Governors – and I know that SBC Councillor Jane MORTIMER is one of them), its ethos and its familial caring atmosphere will all fall victim – ‘collateral damage’ – to a corporate collaboration in whose name quality and choice will be sacrificed to profitability.
If there is, amongst the thousands of supporters of Eskdale, a solicitor with a mind to act pro bonum commune communitatis, I and others will be happy to brief her/him.
To recap, the following individuals (or the bodies they represent) all have something to gain from the present strategy:
- Pete DWYER (NYCC – asset liquidation)
- Keith PRYTHERCH (CCW, future Academy Principalship and autonomy)
- Sue WHELAN (ES, future CCW or future Academy Deputy Headship)
For readers who doubt the objectivity of my appraisal of the evidence supporting the conclusion that the ‘final solution’ to the Eskdale problem has long been planned, I now quote Councillor Ian HAVELOCK – who was a Governor for donkey’s years and a teacher far longer than that:
“The recently revealed proposal to close Eskdale School is the culmination of many years covert planning in order to facilitate the creation of one 11 to 19 school in Whitby. At almost no stage in this process has there been open and transparent negotiation. Parents and students have only become peripherally involved when a decision has already been taken. The Community has had little or no involvement.
Parents and students from Eskdale have discovered that the school may close in September via a ‘leak’ on Facebook. This illustrates very effectively how the decision making process works!
What is required is a formal independent review of education which must involve the whole community.”
I will conclude by presenting an Open Letter from Mike WARD (reproduced below), boldly setting out – in forthright terms which many of the savviest observers share (but hesitate to express) – the pervasive suspicion that subterfuge and coercion have purposively been applied to obscure the true rationale behind the closure decision – a decision, let us remember, whose paramount characteristic should always have been openness and transparency – to disguise the reality that it is firmly rooted in considerations of financial gain and political advancement.
This, too, could be drawn to the attention of the Secretary of State.
Making community decisions behind corporate closed doors is fundamentally incompatible with a free and democratic society.
Making corporate County Hall decisions in our local communities, without proper and transparent disclosure and consultation, about educating the generations who follow us amounts to nothing less than social engineering.
I would suggest that few parents want their children’s futures engineered to accommodate NYCC’s budgetary ineptitude and the personal ambitions of some school leaders.
Our libraries are under attack. Our recreational facilities, too. Our rural bus routes, likewise.
Attacking our children’s futures is a cut too far. Let NYCC tighten its purse-strings elsewhere.
“Hey, Teacher! Leave those kids alone!”