Planning our schools for the long term

There are big lessons to be learned for a long term approach to school provision in Edinburgh, says Melanie Main.

The big education controversy this week in Edinburgh was the council suggesting that it may have to turn away S1 pupils at James Gillespies High School this August, as demand from both the immediate catchment and the wider city Gaelic community soared (Gillespies is the designated home for Gaelic Medium Education at secondary level in the city).

After this week’s debacle I thought that the least the Education Department – or even the Convenor, Cllr Paul Godzik – would do, was apologise for the upset and stress caused to the families of the young people in P7 who stood on the brink of having their transition to S1 dramatically altered mid-course. But no: a hurried letter from the department confirmed they would, after all, get a place at their school.  It was as stark as the letter last week suggesting that they might not get a place.

Before it was withdrawn, the report on school places to Education Committee, outlined the lack of accommodation at Gillespies. But the suggested solution – of denying a place to an estimated 9 pupils-  was flawed, for at least three reasons:

  • There had been no consultation with parents, pupils or the community about how and where pupils would be accommodated.
  • The head teachers of the schools involved had not been central to the discussions and their views were only communicated to committee by parent councils’ question and answer sessions.
  • Education department staff had continued to claim that there had been an unexpected spike in numbers when they have known that this day was coming for years. As far back as 2010 officers had reported unequivocally that Gillespie’s would be over capacity in August this year and had produced the charts to prove it.

So today (3 March) in the audit committee, GRBV, I called for a  report to the next Education Committee in May detailing what went wrong so that lessons can be learned , and scrutinised in public by GRBV in June.  This was agreed.

The wonderful new Gillespie’s School, with 200 capacity per year group, is not even finished yet and it is too small to accommodate its catchment children for S1. At the last minute additional accommodation and resources will have to be found.  Hardly good planning.

This serious lack of joined up strategic planning and management has left the Council up the creek without a paddle, and the situation may be about to get a lot worse. It has been mooted that all our high schools will be full in 5 years’ time.

The council needs to move on from a ‘year by year,’ short term approach to rising rolls. We know how many children are at nursery and primary school, so it’s perfectly possible to forecast what capacity is needed at least 7 years ahead. So let’s see those long-term forecasts and let’s plan long-term on how best to organise our school estate so that our young people are never denied a place at their local high school.

Councillors haven’t seen the projected figures yet for the city as a whole. In these difficult times when funds are scarce, Edinburgh needs long-term planning more than ever – it’s common sense. Let’s see the projections, problems and plans laid plainly in the public domain for all to discuss and debate.  If we are to get through this, if we are to ensure that all children and young people get a place in their designated school, it will be by bringing communities on board and being open, transparent and honest.