Parents at an axed Perthshire school for children with special needs have accused government officials of deliberately “plotting the downfall” of the once-celebrated institution.
They claim the suspension of staff at the New School at Butterstone, including head teacher Bill Colley, in the days prior to this week’s closure announcement were part of an orchestrated campaign to undermine staff.
Families were left with only four days to find alternative arrangements for the 24 children, with many still left in limbo.
Parents and carers — some in tears — gathered at the school on Friday to take their youngsters home for the last time. Two police vehicles were parked nearby and officers patrolled the village.
The campaigners sent Education Secretary John Swinney a petition of almost 7000 signatures asking the Scottish Government to save the school on Thursday night.
The Care Inspectorate and Education Scotland investigated the Dunkeld-based school, which charges fees of between £50,000 and £70,000 a year, in the weeks leading up to the closure after a complaint “raised significant concerns about how children are protected from harm.”
The investigation resulted in staff suspensions and an order to complete certain “improvements and actions.”
The school’s board of governors said it was impossible to do so in the time frame given and emailed parents on Monday to say the school was now “financially unviable” and would shut.
It has since been claimed the statutory bodies turned down a board of governors request for more time to make the improvements at a meeting to decide the school’s future, held at the premises on November 19.
A potential buyer for the school, the Witherslack Group, withdrew its interest in the school following a period of “due diligence” while the investigations were ongoing.
Parent Lee Archibald, 37, from Dundee, said: “There is an injustice being done. Our kids’ education is being sacrificed and it is utterly deplorable that the Care Inspectorate and Perth and Kinross Council have done this.
“Officials at the council have constantly made complaints about issues the parents didn’t want to complain about and have used the Care Inspectorate as a puppet to plot the downfall of the school.”
Concerns have also emerged about the severity of the complaints made against school staff in the weeks leading up to the closure.
One member of staff, who did not want to be named, said the allegation at the heart of the most recent investigation involved a member of staff hitting a pupil with a book.
Mr Colley is said to have failed to report the matter, leading to his suspension.
A police source confirmed there was no criminal investigation of any description under way.
However, other sources pointed towards concerns about the handling of a number of other serious incidents in the years prior to the most recent investigations.
Susan Briggs, 40, from Stanley, who still hasn’t found a new school for her son, said: “The local authority has insinuated that my child wasn’t safe at the school and I don’t think that is the case at all.
“You have got 24 children with complicated support needs who have had their education taken away today.”
Deputy First Minister John Swinney said: “I am incredibly sad that the New School Butterstone is closing and our urgent priority has been to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the children and young people. That has been the sole focus of government, Education Scotland and the Care Inspectorate throughout.
“Since the Board took the decision to close the school, Education Scotland, the Care Inspectorate and all the relevant local authorities have been working with the school and with families to focus on the needs of each young person. That is a complex process, done with close engagement with parents, and must take account of individual pupil’s specific circumstances as we all seek a smooth transition into appropriate alternative educational provision.”
A spokesperson for the Care Inspectorate said: “The safety and wellbeing of children is always our first priority and, after visiting the school, our inspectors were sufficiently concerned about elements of the care experienced by children that we issued an Improvement Notice.
“We remained committed to working with the school to ensure the care provided to children improved as we required, however, despite this, the school informed us of their decision to close.
“The local authorities, together with Education Scotland and the Care Inspectorate, continue to work closely to ensure that there are appropriate and carefully considered plans for each young person.”
No one at Perth and Kinross Council was available for comment.