School conditions: after the storm

Urgent answers are needed to the latest Edinburgh school repair fiasco, says Green candidate Andy Wightman.

There is a well-known problem with the condition of Edinburgh’s schools.  It is a problem of an ageing estate, some of which was poorly-built in the first place, coupled with a forty-year old legacy of poor maintenance and weak forward-thinking, which has spanned many political administrations in the city.

Despite recent budget decisions to put more money into school repairs and maintenance and despite a re-organisation of property management, there is still a gap between what is needed for school repairs and what is available.

It is why, back in January, Green councillor colleagues in Edinburgh proposed a council tax rise of 97p a week for 2016-17, to fund necessary repair work.

However, the issue is now clearly more widespread than previously thought. The assumption, reasonably enough, is that one way to improve the overall quality of the school estate, is through the building of new schools. Over the last 10-15 years, many new schools have been built, first of all through two rounds of public-private partnerships (PPP), more recently though traditional design-build contracts.

Alison and AndyNow I am no fan of the PPP process and I am glad that it is gone.  The council will be paying through the nose, for decades, for private investment, while surrendering day to day control over the use of the school buildings.  However, the very least one could expect is that the buildings were built to the right standard and that they are being properly maintained.  In other words, that those new schools could be ticked-off the list of school buildings needing attention.

That is why the storm damage at Oxgangs Primary School at the end of January has been so shocking.  That such a new school, built under PPP, could have wall construction problems that were so susceptible to the kind of storm that hits Scotland 2 to 3 times every winter is genuinely surprising.  And that similar fears have caused temporary closures of Firrhill High School, St Peters Primary and Braidburn Special School, with up to 19 schools and other buildings potentially in the wider frame.

As a dad with a daughter until recently at a (PPP-built) secondary school I fully understand the anxiety parents have felt.  The tragedy of Keane Wallis-Bennett at Liberton High School, killed by a falling wall, is still very raw in the city.  I also understand the anger that parents have felt about the way that arrangements have suddenly had to be changed to cope with temporary closures although I also know that schools and council staff have been working round the clock to make arrangements work.

The latest news – as of right now (8 April) – that 17 PPP schools and 1 community centre are to be closed on Monday is deeply troubling. Only yesterday, the council issued a message saying that all schools would be open after the Easter holidays on Monday 11th April and enclosed copies of the correspondence from the private consortium saying that schools were safe, while also acknowledging that the problem at Oxgangs Primary School had been one of poor workmanship when the school was built.  And it now seems that the council cannot get the assurances it needs that the schools are indeed safe.

This is staggering. As of Monday thousands of school children are going to be thrown into confusion and their families into deep anxiety while the PPP consortium (the Edinburgh Schools Partnership) cannot guarantee that most basic assumption: that a school is safe.

It is quite right to focus immediately on making schools safe and ensuring continuity of education, where possible. Children and their families come first.  But this fiasco has potentially massive implications. If it turns out that shoddy workmanship on one set of cavity walls went unchecked what assurance do we have that other parts of the construction is up to standard?  A full inspection of the condition of all of these schools is needed now.

And the council has been absolutely must get to the bottom of where responsibility lies. The private contractor should be fully responsible for all the costs incurred: not just the building work, but the transport and alternative accommodation needed before and now after the Easter break. But more than that: there must be an inquiry to find out why this happened, why it was not picked up as part of management of the project, how the inspection of construction was covered in contractual conditions and where responsibility lay for ensuring standards of construction.

And maybe now it is time to close the chapter on that decades-long obsession with handing over the building and maintaining of schools and other  public buildings to the private sector.

Andy Wightman is Green candidate for Lothian for the Scottish Parliament election.