Tories take the axe to Wiltshire's outdoor education
By Trevor Carbin
The unjustified decision to close Oxenwood and Braeside was called in to the scrutiny committee by Wiltshire councillors. It was considered at a special meeting on Tuesday April 10th. The Conservatives used their majority on the committee to reject the appeal. Although the call-in didn't change the decision it did at least give members of the public the opportunity to speak and to hear the debate - an opportunity which was denied to them when the decision was made by the WC 'cabinet'. Agenda
A webcast of the meeting can be seen here .
Generations of children have benefited from the two outdoor establishments in the county - Oxenwood near Marlborough and Braeside in Devizes. Now despite the huge potential of the centres Wiltshire Conservatives have decided to shut them both.
Their justification is that the buildings would require some capital expenditure to keep them going.
Here's the 'official' press release from Wiltshire Conservatives:
"Outdoor education provision in Wiltshire will change later this year as Wiltshire Council closes its two centres and encourages schools and groups to access the wider range of provision available.
Council leaders took the decision after reviewing the high costs required for repairs of the two outdoor education centres while vital funds are needed for frontline services, including protecting vulnerable children and providing sufficient school places while ensuring high standards in schools.
Only approximately 30% of Wiltshire schools now use the centres at Braeside and Oxenwood for residential use as there are a number of different options available across the wider area. The centres are run as a traded service and are an additional provision which is not statutory to provide. Both centres will remain open until the end of August.
Laura Mayes, cabinet member for children said: "Budgets are tight and it's important we spend our money wisely and fund those areas where it is most needed including supporting our vulnerable children and investing in other education priorities.
"We can no longer meet the high costs of running outdoor education centres but I'm pleased there is already a wide range of facilities available which many of our schools already use."
The decision comes after a review which showed a £1.4m capital investment would be required to keep the centres open.
The review also concluded a number of schools and organisations were using a wide range of other outdoor learning facilities nearby and further afield."
This is a betrayal of Wiltshire's children as schools will either have to reduce their use of outdoor activities or use private sector facilities. It's a typical 'can't-do' response from Jane Scott's administration. If the buildings need £1.4m of repairs then why weren't they properly maintained in the past? When County Hall needed a new roof the money was found, but when the well-being of the county's schoolchildren is a stake it's a different story.
Analysis of the capital budget reveals the money could be found if the political will existed.
In any event the evidence behind the decision is shaky. Braeside makes an operational yearly profit, only going into deficit when the dubious charges levied by County Hall are factored in. It rather looks as if the Tories have been avid to make the decision to close the centres, and have then looked for the justification using whatever dodgy data they can find.
A more business-like approach to running the centres, using the experience and expertise of the managers and staff, could have turned them into thriving and profitable concerns. Yes there is competition from other providers, but Braeside and Oxenwood have unique selling points which could have been exploited by a more go-ahead administration.
Hear what sensible words Ofsted say: "Outdoor education gives depth to the curriculum and makes an important contribution to students' physical, personal and social education" and "Students generally make good progress in outdoor education, both at school and outdoor centres. They develop their physical skills in new and challenging situations as well as exercising important social skills such as teamwork and leadership". (Sept 2004 report)
The centres also had the ability to run events for children with special needs, and for those classed as Able, Gifted and Talented.
Whilst acknowledging the financial position of the council these closures are unnecessary and counter-productive in the long run. It's a wretched decision by an administration more interested in serving itself than the people of Wiltshire.