Liberton High gym block could be demolished

Paul Godzic. Picture: Lesley Martin
Paul Godzic. Picture: Lesley Martin
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THE PE block in which Keane Wallis-Bennett lost her life may be demolished after city education chiefs announced it would remain closed following the completion of a police probe.

The news comes as senior figures from across the Capital’s political spectrum are presenting a “united front” to the Scottish Government in a joint bid for funding to repair crumbling schools and prevent a repeat of the Liberton High tragedy.

Keane Wallis-Bennett. Picture: contributed

Keane Wallis-Bennett. Picture: contributed

City leaders plan to carry out an extensive consultation with parent representatives, staff and local families on the future of the ill-fated gym, with options set to include complete demolition.

Councillor Paul Godzik, education chief, said: “We have to have that discussion and it’s right we have that discussion with them rather than just making the decision.”

Councillor Godzik has teamed up with the SNP’s Jim Eadie, MSP for Edinburgh Southern, and Labour’s Ian Murray, MP for Edinburgh South, to call for ministers to step in with the £30 million city chiefs say will be needed to bring all of Edinburgh’s schools up to at least “satisfactory” standard.

The move comes two weeks after 12-year-old Keane Wallis-Bennett lost her life after a “wobbly” modesty wall at Liberton High collapsed on top of her while she was getting ready for a PE class.

Council bosses have outlined a five-year timetable of emergency maintenance and repairs spending at the city’s neediest schools but say this will be accelerated dramatically with direct help from ministers.

They have also confirmed all free-standing walls at Castlebrae High and Leith Academy which are identical to the one that collapsed at Liberton will be demolished, with similar structures either knocked down or reinforced through additional buttressing.

Confirmation of new demolition work – which will take place before the summer term begins next week – comes after nine such walls were found at the two secondary schools during a city-wide probe carried out in the immediate aftermath of the Liberton High incident.

Education bosses are still finalising whether, and how much, demolition is needed at other examined sites and say this will be announced shortly.

The Evening News can also reveal that the gym in which Keane lost her life will remain closed even after a police investigation has concluded, with city chiefs set to carry out a consultation with the Liberton community on options that may include demolishing the building entirely.

In his first in-depth interview since the tragedy unfolded on April 1, Cllr Godzik said the episode had shocked him profoundly and admitted he had given serious thought to his position as the Capital’s education leader.

He said: “Something like this should never happen – when it does, of course you do a lot of soul searching and it affects you deeply.

“If you are responsible and something like this happens, you feel you yourself are to blame. But this is not about me as an individual – it’s about how we as a council collectively respond to what has 
happened.”

With a police and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) probe into the Liberton incident now entering its third week, Cllr Godzik said he was unable to answer questions about the high school’s ill-fated gym or the changing room modesty wall, which are still closed to all but investigating officers.

However, he confirmed an extensive survey of Liberton High was carried out as part of a series of similar studies at all of Edinburgh’s schools in 2012-13, adding that its buildings were among the first to be examined in an effort to get on top of the repairs and maintenance issue.

He said the survey – completed by an independent surveyor over a period of 20 days – resulted in the production of a 1500-page report, after which the school was classified as a B-rated “priority 2” establishment and lined up for at least £1m in funding to stop it from developing “major defects”.

But he confirmed concerns over the school’s PE block were not raised beyond the need for heating improvements, even though pupils reportedly flagged the modesty wall to staff months before it collapsed on top of Keane.

While stressing that wider questions over the robustness of the council’s school condition survey would have to wait until the completion of the police and HSE investigation, Cllr Godzik said the council was “absolutely determined” to establish exactly what went wrong at Liberton.

“Fundamentally, we want to get to the bottom of what happened and ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again in one of our schools,” he said. “After the incident we took action to check the school estate and in a number of schools there were similar structures to the one which collapsed.

“We have identified these and we feel it is appropriate that we take action to remove them, which will be before the schools return after the Easter holiday.”

Cllr Godzik is now working with his political allies to push for more repairs cash from central government, with Mr Eadie actively seeking urgent meetings with senior ministers on the issue.

And amid wider moves towards a fundamental rethink of the relationship between ministers and local authorities, Mr Murray said the city’s Liberton campaign was not just about securing cash injections.

He said: “The council’s survey highlighted a five-year, £30m plan so that’s the target.

“The council has squeezed every penny out of the council’s budget to get the five-year timescale in place but the more money you have, the shorter the timescale becomes.

“If they send a cheque for £30m, brilliant – but it’s not just about that. There are other avenues. This is not just an Edinburgh problem – it’s a problem right across Scotland.

“I think the main thing is for us to work together to get the cash but also to put mechanisms in place to fix this.”

Government ministers said they were “always open” for discussion regarding the issue of schools cash but stressed significant new investment for classrooms in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland was already in the pipeline.

A spokesman said: “While the Scottish Government is always open for discussion with local authorities on issues of funding, we are already putting significant investment into the £1.25 billion Scotland’s Schools for the Future programme, which is undertaken by working in partnership with local authorities to tackle the worst condition schools.

“This is in addition to capital allocation for councils and is being used to directly fund new schools and the refurbishment of existing schools.”