Building schools for our communities

Learning from school building programmes of the past is crucial in building for the future, says Mary Campbell.

Council priorities come and go over the years but it is hard to imagine a time when schools are not right up there. Of course, what matters is what goes on inside schools and the buildings themselves are just the stage for that. But the buildings matter as well.

So we are at one of those crossroads just now in Edinburgh. Across the city, the next phase of new secondary schools looms. The new Queensferry High School is due to start on site this summer and at Trinity, Liberton and Craigmillar significant investment is needed in new or refurbished schools.

However, the picture is most complicated in the south west of the city, where a combination of rising population and increasingly dated buildings at Balerno, Currie and Wester Hailes has prompted a range of options for the future. These come before the Education Committee tomorrow (22 May) after 6 months of deliberation and dozens of meetings, many of which I have attended myself.

As any of the parents, young people and council staff involved will attest, it has not been an easy process. What has shone through is how passionately people care about their local schools and the future prospects for their children. In navigating a way forward the council needs to show it has listened to what people have said.

There is an overwhelming view, from parents, community groups and teaching unions that the best way forward is to commit to new or refurbished schools in Balerno, Currie and Wester Hailes on their existing sites. That is what I believe the council should do.

However, I have also listened carefully to some parents and staff in the Wester Hailes area that enhanced educational opportunities for young people there need to be a top priority. That is why I’ll also be proposing getting parents, young people and staff together to develop the best future for education in Wester Hailes: to build on the excellent work going on there,, but also addressing reputation, strengthening curriculum offer and further improving networks with nearby schools.

It is vital that the council gets this right. Across the city we can see the consequence of decisions about schools that have not stood the test of time. That goes back decades to schools built in the 1960s – including my own school, the former Portobello High School building.

More recently, the spate of schools built in the early 2000s under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangements are already raising concerns – not just at Oxgangs PS and the other 16 schools built under PPP1 – but on issues like day to day maintenance, out of school lets and accountability of those who run the schools. These PPP contracts still have years to run but the council will need to prepare well in advance if it is to avoid being handed schools in poor condition and needing massive investment.

And it is not clear to me that lessons have been learned. The new Queensferry High School, for example, is being built under a model which, in all but name, is PPP. Overseen by the Scottish Futures Trust the council will enter into a contract with a DBFM company which in turn will be wholly owned by a holding company (DBFM HoldCo) 60% of whose share capital is private sector. Fundamentally, it repeats the same complexity as has been criticised under PPP models.

Quite understandably, the school communities in Queensferry and elsewhere are anxious to see a new school building provided and if that is the funding model on the table then that is what needs to be done. But, as we look ahead to a new generation of schools, now is the time for the council to press the Scottish Government hard on a simpler, more efficient way of funding schools – one which is funded publicly, commissioned publicly and run publicly.

Cllr Mary Campbell is Green spokesperson on Education and councillor for Portobello-Craigmillar.