Planning The Learning Environment

It’s with some trepidation that I find myself the Green  member of the Forum on Children and Families Estate Evaluation,  the committee that discussed schools closures  some years ago.    Over the last five years  the SNP-LibDem Coalition that ran Edinburgh City Council closed 7 primary and 2 nursery schools.    It was a painful process not just for those communities but for the many more whose schools were  threatened with closure and had to fight for survival in 2007.

We were told these schools had to be closed as rolls were falling and vital funds would be raised from capital receipts from selling off the buildings and land.  Greens supported communities in their fights against closure, and Alison Johnstone MSP, who was the Green Spokes-person for Education in Council at that time, argued that this short-term approach was flawed as school rolls were going to rise from 2013 and closing primaries would simply store up problems for the future.

So here we are,  looking towards the 2013 in-take  in primary schools with a major ‘new problem’  – the School primary roll  is expected to rise by a massive 24%  in the period to 2019 and of our 87 primary schools, 32 are over 90% full, and only 18 operating under 70%.    And the shortfall in school places will start in August 2013, in only twelve months time.

If something is to be done in time for the 2013 August in-take, and clearly it must be done,  the Forum has just two scheduled meetings in September  to get its collective heads round the problems facing schools and put forward recommendations.      It is very frustrating not to know even now exactly which schools we are dealing with, or their specific needs and what short term options there  are.   I seriously wonder how we will to do justice to this task with such a short timescale –  it is more than a little daunting.

Cleary this should have been addressed some time ago.  Looking forward we must ensure that long-term strategy is put in place, that is flexible enough to cope with short-term variation in demand for school places.

For the next five years, the committee will continue to sit looking further ahead, considering our education estate:  planning the learning environment where children will spend the majority of week days, about 30 hours a week.  Greens are concerned that this should be more than a cost cutting exercise.  While we recognise the current constraints in funding, we are building for the future of our children, and should be setting out to aim for nothing less than the very best educational and social environment.

So the Forum on Children and Families Estate Evaluation (FEE) met for the first time last week:  the agenda was an overview of the city wide status and proposed work of group.  I called for three basic necessary actions .

Firstly, in the last week of summer school term, there was general confusion and uproar when some school parent councils were invited, seemingly at random, to attend the Forum, and at first they did not know what discussions they were being asked to be part of.   The process to choose the three parent reps was not transparent to say the very least.  So I have asked for a specific recommendation outlining how Parent Councils will be involved in FEE to be brought to the Educations Children and Families Committee’s next meeting,  and this was accepted.

Secondly    –  what has been the outcome of school closures of the last five years and does this have any bearing on the overcrowded schools and lack of space?   I asked for a report outlining the schools closures in last five years and the current status and use of this estate be brought to the next meeting of FEE –  the information will be made available.

But most importantly,  the papers presented gave only  city-wide statistics and general observations and suggests  about accommodation (eg suggesting libraries and IT no-longer need dedicated rooms).     For meaningful discussion and for informed decisions, I asked for schools rolls and accommodation to be broken down  to individual school level.    This will be provided.    Papers will be on the website.

Schools and communities have different needs, diverse buildings and environments exist across the city, Victorian and new build afford very different solutions, so  we need to look at the these holistically with staff, parents  and pupils being consulted.     As Greens,  in opposition in the City Council, we will be pushing for full consultation and a clear vision for a school estate fit for the 21st Century.     Greens want a full open debate on the future of our school estate and I want to hear your views:  melanie.main@edinburgh.gov.uk.

 

Forum on Children and Families Estate Evaluation

Next meeting 4th September

Papers for meetings are normally published a week in advance on the website: http://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/cpol