Outdoor education: anger at closure of centres & pleas for Wiltshire Council to allow them to be taken over
There was a lot of anger expressed at a meeting held at St Peter's Church (May 8) to protest against Wiltshire Council's closure of its two outdoor education centres - Oxenwood near Marlborough and Braeside in Devizes.
The meeting heard there was some hope that the centres might be taken over and continue to serve Wiltshire children. But for that to happen pressure on Wiltshire Council had to be kept up. The Council had been forced to extend the deadline for the submission of business plans. However, even after the extension, the time allowed is still very short indeed.
The meeting was organised by the Devizes Labour Party with the constituency's LibDems and Green Parties as other lead speakers. It was well attended with representatives from the two centres, the Chair of Braeside Management Committee, three Wiltshire Councillors (LibDems Ross Henning from Chippenham & Brian Matthew from Box & Colerne, and Labour's John Walsh from Salisbury) and people from Swindon, Devizes, Bedwyn and Salisbury - as well as Marlborough.
Also there was Lucy Gomes who started the petition against the closures, which now has nearly 16,000 signatures. She will be presenting the petition to the meeting of Wiltshire Council on May 22 - and she hopes there will be a big lobby at County Hall in Trowbridge that day.
Lucy Gomes said she started the petition in a 'fit of anger': "I felt really sad - both our children had been to Braeside and Oxenwood. Then I felt really angry - how could we stop it? I felt I had to do something. Let's make Wiltshire Council change their minds - we know they want to wash their hands of Braeside and Oxenwood."
She said they had gained a 'small victory' in getting the deadline extended to allow others to take the centres over: "The way the decision was made was - shall we say - dodgy. This was party politics at its worst. I'm not political - I'm a floating voter. We have the opportunity to make these centres even better - we need to make Wiltshire Council take the right steps."
Several people made the point that not only were the centres' staff in limbo - with expected redundancy on 31 August 2018 - but schools trying to plan their 2018-2019 curriculum and class activities were also being left stranded. And there was criticism that headteachers had not been asked for their views or warned about the possibility of closure.
Some pressure could come from the county's Primary Heads Forum, which was meeting Council officials this week. And the protest meeting agreed that all headteachers should be contacted immediately - time was running out.
Sylvia Card (Labour), Emma Dawnay (Green Party) and Alan Rankin (LibDems) all spoke about the value of the centres - Ms Dawnay from the personal experience of her daughter for whom time at the centres was 'one of the highlights of her primary school year.' And there were other heartfelt stories of the good the centres can do and have done for young Wiltshire children.
Alan Borrie (Chair of the Braeside Management and a former headmaster) said he was not a Wiltshire Council employee and so could speak out - unlike the representatives from the centres. He stressed that the centres are in the right place to show pupils vital parts of the history of Wiltshire and get to know more about where they live: "I've been there with my school - I know their value."
"You can't say these centres are rundown and not run properly. They're run as best they can be with the money Wiltshire Council allows them"
He criticised the Council for issuing figures about the centres that are '...fairly inaccurate or totally inaccurate': "The Council are the wrong people to run these centres." He quoted the Council's heavy charges for use of the Council computer system: "The centres should be passed on to new management who understand how these centres should be run."
Braeside's manager, Keith Browning, speaking as a Wiltshire resident, said the decision had come as a complete surprise: "We knew there was a review - but there was no real indication it would lead to this."
"The decision was very shocking to me and the staff - but I feel now it's been made and is unlikely to be changed or reversed...The challenge now is to ensure Wiltshire Council will allow the centres to be taken over and keep the service the same - for children's education."
"We should pressurise them toward a collaborative way forward - that might be the most positive result in the end."
It is known that two organisations have been to see Braeside, and marlborough.news understands there are as many as six organisations that have expressed interest in the centres. But it was generally agreed that they needed more time to work through their plans.
One of the key points that Wiltshire Council has buried is that a small centre like Oxenwood with its bespoke programmes and its 'individual care for each child', is ideal for primary school pupils who are often having their first night away from home. They may not be able to cope with the large commercial centres Wiltshire Council says can take over from their two centres.
Looking ahead to Wiltshire Council's August 31 closure date, Alan Borrie said: "We don't want to lose these wonderful staff - they make the centres."
Councillor Laura Mayes - who proposed the closures to the Wiltshire cabinet - was invited to the meeting, but was unable to attend.
None of the Marlborough Area's four Wiltshire Councillors were at the meeting and there was no representative from Marlborough Town Council. Ms Card had written to all the town councillors and had only had a reply from Councillor Lisa Farrell.
It was pointed out that Devizes Town Council had met to discuss the closures and unanimously passed a resolution of protest to Wiltshire Council.
Lucy Gomes' change.org petition to Wiltshire Council can be found here.