Paying for the schools our children deserve

After a tragedy such as the death of Keane Wallis-Bennett, the immediate and only thoughts are with the family and friends of Keane.

Even with a daughter of my own of the same age, also in S1 at a neighbouring school, I can only glimpse the deep grief and pain everyone will be feeling.

As initial numbness gives way to understandable anger, all councillors have a duty to do everything we can to prevent such a tragedy happening ever again.

Exactly what went wrong in Liberton High School, we will know in due course. But, more generally, it has been clear for some time that there is a long-term problem of investment in and repair of school buildings.

For decades the school estate in Edinburgh has been neglected, so the decision to commission surveys for the whole school estate was both brave and necessary.

The staff who took that necessary step should be thanked for facing up to that long-term neglect and laying out the simple facts for all to see.

The level of investment needed is stark: £90.6 million. The repairs and maintenance bill is £29.1m and improvements are costed at £61.5m.

However, this year’s budget was agreed with only half of the funding for improvements identified over the next five years. Even more glaringly, the council’s budget has only £4.2m per year for maintenance and planned work across the entire council estate, while £8m is needed just for schools and related buildings for each of the next two years, as part of that £29.1m total bill.

So the current annual budget of £4.2m is only half of what is needed for schools and children’s centres, never mind libraries, depots and other public buildings.

This is why officers have warned that the current repairs budget is so under-funded that it ‘will impact little on required works’.

The council also needs to adopt planned preventative maintenance programmes for schools. As anyone who has to maintain a home knows, the rapid  downwards spiral that results from neglect is a false economy. We have been warned.

Back in March, as a member of the council’s audit committee, I asked for school repairs and conditions to be closely examined by the committee and will press for this to happen as soon as possible. That should help secure consensus about what needs to happen.

So, crucially, how much do we need? And how do we get it?

An additional £10.5m a year would allow the repairs backlog to be addressed in full and fund the additional borrowing needed to improve schools.

£10.5m is £1 a week extra on council tax. I propose that the city council goes to the Scottish Government and makes the case for this as a special school repair and improvement levy. £1 a week, earmarked only for schools, and sitting outside the terms of the council tax freeze.

£1 a week: surely a small price for a well maintained school estate: no less than Edinburgh needs and future generations deserve.