Edinburgh school closures: ‘Luck’ that no children were killed

  • Report released into failings which led to wall collapse at Oxgangs Primary
  • In total 17 schools were closed for investigation and repairs last year
  • Around 8000 pupils were affected by the closures
  • Councillor Melanie Main: ‘There are huge lessons to be learned’

ONLY “timing and luck” prevented the deaths of children when nine tonnes of brickwork collapsed at a primary school, an inquiry has found.

That was the conclusion of an independent expert after the “shocking” findings of an inquiry into Edinburgh’s school buildings scandal were laid bare.

The collapsed wall at Oxgangs Primary School.

The collapsed wall at Oxgangs Primary School.

The 250-page report examines the construction of a number of schools across the Capital following the collapse of a brick wall at Oxgangs Primary School in January 2016.

It states the wall’s collapse – which happened in the early hours of the morning – was caused by a combination of “poor quality” construction and a lack of adequate supervision.

Led by construction expert Professor John Cole, the report sets out a number of failings which led to the collapse, as well as the subsequent closure of 17 schools across Edinburgh.

He said: “The fact that no injuries or fatalities to children resulted from the collapse of the gable wall at Oxgangs School was a matter of timing and luck.

The report pulls no punches and makes clear what went wrong, the reasons for it and where responsibility lay

Andrew Kerr

“Approximately nine tonnes of masonry fell on an area where children could easily have been standing or passing through.

“One does not require much imagination to think of what the consequences might have been if it had happened an hour or so later.”

Read More: EDINBURGH SCHOOL CLOSURES REPORT - THE FINDINGS

All of the schools which closed were built between 2002 and 2005 as part of a private-public partnership deal (“PPP1”) between the city council and the Edinburgh Schools Partnership (ESP) private finance consortium.

A private-public partnership – also referred to as a private finance initiative (PFI) – sees contractors pay for construction costs before renting the finished building back to the public sector.

Prof Cole, an architect, cited the primary reason for the Oxgangs collapse as wall ties – which bind walls to the main structure – not being sufficiently embedded.

As well as criticising the ESP for the construction carried out under its charge, the council also came under fire for relying too heavily on contractors’ inspections.

Prof Cole’s team states this meant contractors were essentially “marking their own homework” and that the council was “effectively totally reliant” on the quality assurance processes of the ESP and their construction supply chain.

The report was commissioned by city council chief executive Andrew Kerr, who praised Prof Cole for his thorough analysis and said it was clear there were lessons to be learnt.

Around 8000 pupils were affected by the school closures, although the report says any impact on educational attainment was likely to have been “relatively limited”.

The council was praised for handling the unexpected situation “extremely well”, with the conclusion it was right to close the schools.

However, Kevin Stewart, minister for housing and local government, said he was “very concerned” by the report’s findings and said he had written to local authorities to highlight its recommendations.

He said: “I am determined that we do all we can at both local and national level to ensure the building standards regime is as strong as possible and crucially that it is complied with to ensure the safety of our public buildings.”

The inquiry also concludes the PPP approach did not negatively influence the construction of the schools.

READ MORE: Edinburgh school crisis consortium facing million pound penalty

It makes a total of 40 recommendations in areas such as procurement, construction, training and the role of building standards and independent certifiers.

It also adds the construction issues encountered in Edinburgh were likely to be more widespread across the UK, adding the Oxgangs collapse was one of five “avoidable incidents” of external panels at Scottish schools falling down because of high winds.

Breaches of fire-stopping were also discovered at 17 schools, which the inquiry said were under investigation.

Prof Cole appeared at the City Chambers yesterday to present his findings, telling councillors he was “very much assured” that the schools which underwent remedial work were now safe.

Melanie Main, education spokesman for the Greens, said the report displayed a “catalogue of failings”.

She said: “But behind all of that is an even more fundamental question. It is the sheer complexity of PPP contracts, PFI, Scottish Futures Trust, whatever we label them, which heightens the risk of all of these failings.

“I believe it is time to cut the complexity, cut the layers of buck-passing responsibility and put public bodies directly in charge of public buildings.”

Tory councillor Cameron Rose said he was thankful no-one had been hurt at Oxgangs and that it had led to the identification of “potentially catastrophic” building problems elsewhere.

He added: “Nonetheless parents, children, carers, school staff and many other building users suffered enormous inconvenience and that needs to be recognised.”

The inquiry found that two schools – Craigmount High and Royal High – were never issued with building completion certificates, a breach of building regulations.

Luke McCullough, chair of the Royal High Parent Council, said parents would be “completely staggered”.

READ THE FULL REPORT HERE

Mr McCullough said if the lack of a certificate had been spotted, the structural issues might have come to light much sooner.

He said: “The other recommendation we would particularly support was about the council talking with parents about how it can do things better in another crisis.

“We felt the parents councils were totally left out of the picture for the first couple of weeks. When we met them after about a fortnight they did concede they should probably have kept us in better touch.”

He continued: “We were created under law to represent the views of parents but you can’t do that if you’re not in the room.

“Clearly it was an unprecedented situation for them but they do have these established links with parents which are there to be used.”

An ESP spokesman said: “We have fully co-operated with the council and Professor Cole in trying to establish the facts of what happened with the schools affected. Having only just received a copy of the report, we will now take time to consider its findings in detail before commenting further.”

‘Nothing like this can happen again’ says council boss

The schools inquiry was commissioned by city council chief executive Andrew Kerr.

Commenting on its findings, he said: “The report pulls no punches and makes clear what went wrong, the reasons for it and where responsibility lay.

“Clearly there are lessons for the council and I will now be drawing up an action plan to take our recommendations forward to ensure everyone can have confidence in the safety of all of our buildings.

“The council, our public and private sector partners both in Scotland and across the United Kingdom, need to take on board the issues raised and address the concerns highlighted in the report as they have far-reaching implications for the construction industry.”

He continued: “As always, our overriding priority was the safety of the pupils and staff and I am pleased that Professor Cole recognises that our decision to close the schools was well founded and that he acknowledged the scale of the alternative educational arrangements required – and ultimately delivered.

“I want to thank parents once again for their patience last year and the outstanding efforts of teachers and other council staff who pulled out all the stops to ensure our children’s education could continue.

“I would also like to thank Professor Cole and his team for their hard work on this important inquiry. We must ensure that the highest possible standards are adhered to when it comes to future construction projects and ensure that nothing like this can happen again.”