New classrooms planned to deal with overcrowding

Clermiston Primary needs a four-class standalone building. Picture: Jane Barlow
Clermiston Primary needs a four-class standalone building. Picture: Jane Barlow
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A WAVE of brand new teaching blocks will be built at primary schools across Edinburgh in a bid to head off an overcrowding crisis.

Eight schools – Clermiston, East Craigs, Flora Stevenson, Gilmerton, Pentland, Ratho, Wardie and James Gillespie’s – have been lined up for permanent standalone classrooms to ease intense accommodation pressure as catchment populations soar.

The blocks – designed to host around 27 classes – have been proposed as part of the latest package of emergency measures to expand schools which are bursting at the seams.

But relentless rises in P1 rolls have led to the programme’s overall scale and cost being revised upwards for the third time in less than a year.

Education chiefs now estimate they will need to build 87 new classrooms to tackle the problem – up from last year’s projection of 63 and 81 in late February.

The jump has also fuelled a near-£1.5 million rise in the expected cost of schools’ expansion since the start of the year, with the outlay likely to increase from £18.5m to just under £20m.

City leaders have admitted the updated figures mean the deficit they will have to plug to complete the programme is set to swell to almost £5m, with the total bill, including long-term borrowing charges, expected to hit £32.5m.

Opposition leaders said the latest changes showed the Capital’s rising rolls programme had become a “runaway train”.

Melanie Main, education spokeswoman for the Greens, said: “Barely two months after setting a council budget, the need for additional classrooms at primary schools is already set to cost another £5m that is not accounted for.

“While I am sure that the council will find that extra money, as it must, it is in the context of other programmes, like school repairs and improvements, also being millions of pounds short.

“With each passing week, the folly of closing seven schools in the last council term becomes ever more obvious – and the case for a long-term strategy for school buildings becomes more urgent.”

New information has revealed that, after meetings with parents and teaching staff, all seven primary schools selected for expansion before August 2015 will have permanent, standalone classrooms built within their grounds.

Proposals for the new blocks come as the Capital prepares for a predicted 28 per cent explosion in its total population over the next 25 years.

Classrooms are already feeling the squeeze, with rolls set to jump 15 per cent to nearly 31,000 by 2019.

Three south Edinburgh schools hit by particularly acute accommodation pressures have been included in the latest proposals, as education chiefs mull a range of long-term strategies which include construction of the Capital’s first entirely new primary since the 1970s.

A four-class teaching block is set to be built at James Gillespie’s Primary, while further analysis is to be undertaken at Bruntsfield to identify accommodation solutions for August 2016.

At South Morningside Primary, 40-year-old teaching “huts”, which have been slammed as unfit and unsafe by parents, are to be torn down and replaced with at least five new temporary classrooms.

But mums and dads have expressed bitter disappointment that permanent remedies still appear to be many years away.

South Morningside father Michael Wilson, 44, who has a daughter in P7 and a younger child due to start P1 in 2015, said: “It’s very disappointing – these huts are just glorified Portacabins.

“Getting rid of the old huts is maybe progress, but we’re just getting a more modern hut.”

Council leaders have also admitted it is unlikely that multiple problems with the school’s ageing annexe at Cluny church centre – used to accommodate around 50 South Morningside pupils but lacking dedicated medical, toilet and road safety facilities – will be “fully addressed” until a long-term solution is found.

“This is not what we want – it’s not the ideal outcome at all,” said Mr Wilson.

“It’s a pity that the council is in so much debt because of the trams. We need a new school – they need to get that built.”

Fiona Kenny, parent council member at East Craigs Primary, where a tiny gym hall has forced children to eat lunch on their knees, said: “The school cannot deliver on both the P1-3 free school meals and the two hours of PE.

“The positive thing is that they have finance to provide additional classroom space which will relieve pressure on existing classroom areas.

“But the frustration is over the two-budget process. You have the rising rolls budget, which will only provide for additional classrooms, and the capital budget, which you need for a gym hall, and which is empty.

“They have funding for classrooms when they need it and nothing else, even though these are things which are fundamental to pupil development.”

Parents and health experts have also expressed alarm at the possibility that construction of the new teaching blocks will eat into already cramped playgrounds across the city.

Peter Moir, chair of Wardie Primary parent council, said: “We’re are blessed with lots of outdoor space. However, a significant amount has been used up with two additional buildings in recent years.

“With the prospect of a further two classrooms and a new nursery being built within the school grounds by August 2015, the parent council have been pushing for a strategic approach for the management of the school estate. Through a process of making representation of the parent council views with the council, we are now in a position where we are working in partnership with the council, to find a positive solution which will maintain the integrity of the playing field and ensure there’s enough teaching space. It’s a fine balancing act.”

Emma Conroy, of Edinburgh Nutrition, said there would be grave risks to children’s health and general wellbeing if vital outdoor play space was lost through never-ending construction work.

She said: “Exercise in early life sets the tone for later life. And I would be concerned about kids not having adequate exposure to safe levels of sunshine.

“There’s increasing awareness of the importance of vitamin D for adults. It’s almost more important for children because they’re still growing and developing, and there are concerns over problems of brain development for kids who don’t get enough exposure to sunshine and vitamin D.

“It’s certainly common sense that letting kids spend free time outdoors as compared to being indoors is crucial. Play helps the development of brain function.”

City bosses rejected suggestions that they had lost control of the rising rolls programme and said they were taking all necessary steps to provide sufficient teaching space.

Councillor Paul Godzik, education leader, said: “We’re responding to the demand from rising pupil numbers across Edinburgh, working with school communities and head teachers to put in place some innovative solutions.

“I would be happy to listen to other solutions that other people are putting forward, but obviously we have to deal with the demand that’s coming through now and that’s what we intend to do.”

And he called on opposition leaders to say precisely what they would do to fix the problem of overcrowded city schools.

johnpaul.holden@edinburghnews.com