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Schools, green spaces… and lessons from France

Green co-convenor Councillor Melanie Main tackles school re-opening, use of green spaces and lessons from France on transport.

Melanie Main
Cllr Melanie Main

First published in the Edinburgh Evening News

It’s the first week of the school holidays and, sure enough, Monday came along with cold winds and heavy rain.

I am sure that did not put families off being able to get into much-loved attractions like Edinburgh Zoo or Gorgie City Farm on the first day of re-opening. The weather might have even been an unwelcome reminder that things were normal.

Except nothing is normal. The experience of children getting into Gorgie Farm and teenagers queuing up for Primark will still feel nothing like usual. And, of course, the last three months of school have been very far from normal.

To the teachers and other support staff, to the parents and, above all, to the young people, the last three months has mostly felt like survival, everyone doing the best they can with ways of working that had to be put together at very short notice. At best, the end of June felt like a finishing line to be limped over. At worst, a very large number of kids will have simply been disconnected from education.

That is why the Scottish Government faced such a backlash when the early plans for continued “blended learning” were announced. Government ministers looked out of touch with parents worried about juggling work and childcare and young people enduring isolation. So, it is right that there was a rapid change of heart with the current plan for schools in Edinburgh to go back fully on 12 August.

So, plaudits to the parents, young people and teachers who highlighted their concerns in a calm, measured way, above the din of absurd red-faced bellowing from some other opposition MSPs who presumably used volume to disguise the absence of anything positive to say.

Our young people deserve better than that. Over the next 6 weeks they deserve a plan for their schools which is based on evidence and shared understanding across both families and school staff.

Which makes sure that public health comes first with access to regular testing for all school staff and older pupils; and encouraging much wider use of face-coverings in secondary schools: both of which will help to avoid schools shutting up shop again.

Which makes sure that schools have access to the venues and the outdoor spaces they need, plus the staff support, to deliver learning in new ways.

Which, above all, gets away from the notion that 12 August is about “catching up”. Sure, there will be some parts of maths or spelling or geography, or whatever, where gaps need filled in. But that’s not nearly as important as recognising and adapting to the isolation that many young people will have felt since March and which continues today.

There is no getting back to normal. Normal has changed and if we treat the new term simply as a race to catch up we will be letting down a huge number of our children. Getting back to school might be as unsettling as the last three months have been, even more so for those starting P1 and S1 or changing schools for other reasons. That transition back might be a long and uneven road.

The best thing that all politicians can do is support our schools and families to do that and quit using education as a political game.

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As a councillor since 2012 for part of the Meadows, I totally get why that huge expanse of green space in the heart of the city is so dear to so many people. So, as lockdown has eased, and on those warmer afternoons and evenings it’s no surprise to see so many people flock there.

It should be perfectly possible for people to meet and catch up in our green spaces and still keep to vital public health advice: go home to use the toilet and take rubbish away. But scenes last week were way beyond that, with thousands gathering, trouble breaking out and the place left a sea of rubbish to be cleared up on successive mornings by council staff and community volunteers. Edinburgh’s celebrated crime writer Ian Rankin was left lamenting the rudimentary toileting practices from his vantage point within the former Royal Infirmary.

Sadly, these are not new issues for the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links. And they are not unique to the Meadows. My Green colleague Mary Campbell reports much the same in Portobello, and, I am sure, many other hotspots.

As lockdown restrictions relax and change, I am hopeful that the problem of mass gathering will become less intense. Re-opening of toilets – not just public ones, but within cafes and pubs too, is vital. Maybe more bin capacity too, although there are plenty of dispiriting examples of half-empty bins while rubbish is scattered all around.

In truth there is no answer to this which only involves some people clearing up what others have dumped. That’s infantile. So the message is clear: if you managed to bring it, you can take it away.

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Over in France local elections took place last weekend. The results were astonishing for Green Mayor candidates, with wins in cities like Marseille, Lyon and Strasbourg. In Paris Anne Hidalgo easily won a second term as mayor, with Green support, for her radical plan to transform the French capital’s transport system – including removal of 60,000 on-street parking places – almost three-quarters of the city total. The freed-up space will go to walking, wheeling and improvements to public space and the business environment.

Meanwhile, here in Edinburgh plans to reallocate some parking spaces near local shops to allow safe space for people walking and wheeling has generated more excitement than Mayor Hidalgo’s more ambitious plans. Edinburgh plans are now being adapted to take account of comments received last week which is right and proper. But we can’t lose sight of the urgent need to change for safety and to support our local economy.

Six decades where access to shops and business has been centred around cars has resulted in widespread decline for many of our high streets, with high turnover, empty premises and conversions to other uses. Study after study, across the world, has shown increased sales and prosperity when people walk and wheel past local shops. Change can seem daunting but nowhere in the world has gambled future prosperity on increased congestion and won.

So maybe the real lesson in Mayor Hidalgo’s second term victory is that people are a little more ready for ambition than is supposed. Even here in Edinburgh.

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