Our future schools crunch time

The future of secondary schools in the city will come to a special meeting of Edinburgh’s Education Committee this week. Cllr Mary Campbell explains why the Greens are backing investment in existing schools in the south west of the city and pushing for real progress on new schools elsewhere in Edinburgh.

The launch of a review into schools in the west and south west of the city began in November 2017 and came out of the blue for most of the school communities affected. A combination of rising rolls and fatigued school buildings means that it is certainly right to look afresh at how secondary schools are provided. In the west of the city, the picture is a bit less certain and the pressures not as immediate so it has not loomed as large to date. No firm commitments are needed just yet so the council has recommended that a “spatial strategy” for West Edinburgh is developed as part of the next Local Development Plan.

In the south west of the city, however, the review has been much more controversial and needs settled as soon as possible.

South west choices

So that is why, at the previous Education Committee in May, I put forward a motion to back so-called option 1 in the south west of the City. Option 1 seeks to maintain the existing catchments and school locations at Balerno, Currie, Woodlands Special School and Wester Hailes, with some minor changes, and to refurbish, rebuild or expand the school buildings on that basis. I did this because I believed that the evidence was most compelling for that option and I believed that staff, parents and young people needed to be able to end months of uncertainty well before the summer break. However, the SNP-Labour council administration proposed a delay until June and that proposal carried the day by a margin of one vote.

So here we are again. Has much changed?

One of the reasons put forward for the delay is that relatively late on, the parent councils of Clovenstone Primary and Canal View Primary, two of the three primary schools which feed into Wester Hailes Education Centre (WHEC), argued for consideration of the two other options on the table: option two, which is a new South West Edinburgh High School of 900 students, drawing from Wester Hailes and Juniper Green; or option 3, which is a new single school of 1600 students, combining the Wester Hailes and Currie catchments and which would be the largest school in the city. Meanwhile the third WHEC feeder, Sighthill Primary School, have supported option 1.

Still following? Things are now a little more complicated with options further refined. Option 3 has now been split in two with option 3 as before, with a new school on the current Currie site, and option 4, with the same catchment but built on Muirwood Road site, further east towards the city.

However, although it is a complex and shifting picture I don’t believe the fundamentals are very different.

First of all, the council consulted and the feedback is overwhelming: that communities wish to retain their existing schools. Perhaps not surprisingly, that is nearly unanimous in Currie. But even in Wester Hailes, views are mixed among the primary schools and the WHEC Parent Council has said that it wants to retain a school in Wester Hailes.

The volume of feedback is extremely important but is, in itself only part of the picture. However, if the council is to consult and then embark on a path that is very different from the feedback it gets, it needs to have very good reason.

I don’t believe there are such good reasons.

First of all, on costs: these range from £94m to £118m among the 4 options. Option 1 is costed at £101m, so there is no unique financial barrier in its way.

Secondly, on feasibility: option 1 has the very significant advantage of being based on existing sites which the council owns. Any other option throws up problems of site costs, suitability and travel distances. These may – may – be solvable but not easily.

So that leaves issues around equality of opportunity. Over the period of the review, there has definitely been a shift in argument away from simply building condition and population increase to equalising opportunity for children and young people in Wester Hailes. There is no denying that Balerno and Currie High Schools stand in stark contrast to WHEC which hosts many more young people from the lowest income families and is able to offer, at present, fewer curriculum choices to young people.

The council is absolutely right to highlight the need to address that “attainment gap”. As I outline below, it is a priority for me that the gap is addressed. But how?

Would closing WHEC, with the young people currently there going to a larger school, drawing from a wider area, be the answer? It is a complex question to answer and the measures that we might draw on like “attainment tariff” scores or rankings within the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) are still quite crude. For example, attainment is only one benchmark in the suite of strengths which Curriculum for Excellence is seeking to build. And a family’s experience of low income does not allow for very different circumstances within families, like parent support and motivation, or levels of additional support need within a family.

It is very likely that a larger merged school would show higher average attainment scores than WHEC does on its own. But that is a red herring. On this issue, the only true measure is whether those individual young people who are currently at WHEC, especially those from the most disadvantaged families, would fare better at a new larger school than that a revamped WHEC.

To try to understand that better I looked carefully at very detailed statistics for schools in Edinburgh. I looked at schools which were very much mixed schools (with numbers of low income students at or near the Scottish average). I then looked at a range of attainment scores as they applied to students in the lowest income brackets and then compared them to how the lowest income students at WHEC fared. And I discovered that there is no consistent pattern. On some measures young people on the lowest incomes fared better at WHEC than at other schools; in some cases, not so well.

Put this another way: judged by its success in supporting attainment for the 20% of young people from the most deprived families, Edinburgh does not currently do well, and sits just below the national average. However, the responsibility for that lies with all schools, not uniquely or disproportionately with WHEC.

To be clear, then: despite the case made in the council papers for the 21 June 2018, this evidence does not support the case that there would be an “uplift” for the lowest income students if WHEC were closed and those same students went to a larger school.

Does that mean the status quo is fine then? Absolutely not. The parent council at Clovenstone PS was quite right to highlight that young people at WHEC currently have fewer choices than many other schools. However, that is not simply related to size of school. For example, on subject choices, Currie CHS offers quite a bit more than Portobello High School, despite the latter having a new building and 50% greater roll. Meanwhile, on opportunities for wider achievement, senior pupils in WHEC have more options than at a larger school like Trinity.

So if subject choices are a matter of policy rather than solely driven by school size, that can be addressed, partly by positive action to add choices. It can sit alongside a renewed campaign to promote the school (especially a refurbished school) to more families in the catchment area and also by strengthening the partnership with nearby schools from Balerno to Forrester and from Currie to Firrhill.

In other words, investing in the existing schools can be the foundation for radical action to improve equality of opportunity without the leap into the unknown of tearing up the catchment map and in defiance of community feedback. That is why option 1 is the right option and the just option.

Investing in schools across the city

The south west review has been the dominant issue for Education Committee over the last six months, But across the city there have also been major issues raised for the condition of high schools in Trinity, Craigmillar, Liberton and Leith. Of these, Trinity and Castlebrae have loomed largest to date in committee sessions. As a ward councillor for Craigmillar I understand in detail the need for a new high school in a new location at the centre of the community to address the influx of new housing over the next decade and more. The funding is largely in place and the community impatient to see work begin; which is why I am delighted that the council has recommended committing now to building a new school. I have also been round Trinity Academy with parents and fully appreciate that significant investment is needed there and with some urgency: again I welcome a commitment to begin the investment in sports facilities there, although it is only the start of a potential need for £50-60m in the provision at Trinity.

So that also why, back in February, at budget time, Green councillors put forward a landmark programme of £200m for all so-called “wave 4” schools – taking the case direct to Scottish ministers by pledging money from the council to unlock a comparable commitment from the Scottish Government. Just last week at Finance Commitment Green councillors backed an update to the council’s budget framework which, if agreed, would allow the council to get closer to identifying another £78m for new schools.

There has been no shortage of debate on schools over the last six months. Now is the time to see firm commitments and real progress.

Mary Campbell is Green Education spokesperson