School repairs inquiry

Green councillor Melanie Main argues that an inquiry into the school repairs crisis must have no areas which are out of bounds.

The current crisis in the condition of PPP1 schools started in the storms of January and is still with us in May. From a collapsing wall at Oxgangs PS, to further problems at 3 other schools, to the current displacement of over 7,000 pupils in 17 schools across Edinburgh, it has been a massive ordeal for the city.

Since the crisis escalated on 8 April the primary focus has, quite rightly, been on getting children and young people into alternative buildings, on getting repair work underway and on seeking clarity on how long families can expect to be waiting before it is safe to return to their own school. Staff have worked tirelessly and under stressed conditions to make this happen and parents I have spoken to recognise those efforts.  The announcement, on Friday, of a clearer timeline for schools re-opening will be welcomed, although it will still seem like a long haul for thousands of families.

But it has also been apparent early on that it is not just walls that need rebuilt; it is trust. For that a full-ranging and independently-chaired inquiry is needed. My colleague, Steve Burgess and I pressed that case at council committee two weeks ago and again at the full council meeting on 28 April.  Council leader, Andrew Burns, who has, himself, made huge efforts to deal with the crisis, got himself tied in knots as to the need for an inquiry and its scope.  In particular, his insistence, in front of full council, that the problem is one of construction, not of contract, is wrong.

It is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, it is wrong in principle, because an inquiry must not have no-go areas. If an inquiry wants to look into the funding deal struck more than a decade ago then it must do so.

Secondly, it is wrong in practice. Sure, something has gone very wrong with the way these 17 schools were built a decade ago. But that original failure has been compounded by the dismal way that the private consortium, Edinburgh Schools Partnership, has responded.  Delays in surveys coming back, lack of urgency on the ground, poor information flow, and anonymity hidden behind hastily-arranged contracts with PR companies, surveyors and building managers: these are all legitimate criticisms that can be levelled at ESP.  And that is because, in defiance of its name, ESP is not set up to run schools.  It is a funding vehicle, in which stakes can be bought and sold, which delivers services through a series of sub-contracts.

If that is not a contract issue, I don’t know what is. So if ESP is to continue to manage these school buildings for the rest of the contract term – and for some parents that is a big “if” – it needs to demonstrate, both now and to an inquiry, that it can actually do so.

Families expect no less.

Councillor Melanie Main is Green spokesperson on education and has a daughter at secondary school in the city. This blog was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News.