New school to ease pressure on city classrooms

Pressure is growing on crowded classrooms. Picture: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Pressure is growing on crowded classrooms. Picture: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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DETAILED proposals for a new £15 million primary school to ease pressure on south Edinburgh’s squeezed classrooms have been unveiled.

The school – the first entirely new campus to be built in the city for more than 30 years – would ease accommodation problems at South Morningside, James Gillespie’s and Bruntsfield primaries, where scores of children are being taught in crumbling prefabs and church annexes.

But meeting the cost of the new primary – and providing dozens of extra classrooms at other crowded Edinburgh schools – will leave education chiefs facing a funding shortfall of nearly £20m. And the Evening News can reveal they are considering a long-term borrowing plan to fill the gap.

South Morningside, which currently operates across three sites and accommodates a roll approaching 600 in a building designed for 14 classes, is under particular strain, with P1 registrations sitting at 105.

City bosses said building a new 14-class primary in south Edinburgh – first mooted as far back as 1998 – was the “logical solution” to what they have described as untenable “compound” accommodation problems.

They said it would enable them to redraw catchment boundaries and remove pressure from the three affected primaries.

But they have admitted the £15.3m cost of building a brand new south Edinburgh primary is “significant” and will also explore two alternative solutions – a £14m annexe for P1-3 classes from South Morningside and a £5.7m plan of co-ordinated measures to boost classroom space at existing school sites.

The south Edinburgh squeeze is so acute it is being considered separately from a wider rising rolls programme. Last week we revealed how education chiefs were weighing up an £18.5m spend on 81 new classrooms across the Capital to cope with the growing pressure.

Worried parents have urged education leaders to move quickly to head off an over-subscription crisis similar to that which recently hit Hillhead Primary in Glasgow, where catchment families were told they no longer have an automatic right to send children to the school after it emerged the number of youngsters enrolled was greater than the places available.

Councillor Paul Godzik, education leader, said: “We recognise that there’s an issue there. These are very constrained sites and already have temporary accommodation within the school grounds.

“We have still to get certainty over a site but we are assessing possibilities at a number of sites for a new school or an off-site annexe.

“If we put in the immediate and short-term measures in place, it will help us for a number of years but the fact remains that there’s a long-term pressure there.” Practical problems faced by the three schools include limits to the range of learning activities available, inadequate ventilation, excessive noise levels, and increased risk of disease caused by large numbers of pupils sharing one or two ­toilets in temporary buildings.

There have also been reports of some children being forced to eat lunch at their desks because of a lack of dining space.

Building a new primary will create a major financial headache for city leaders, who have allocated £14.9m to deal with rising rolls but admit they now face a combined £34m bill to construct the school and provide dozens of classrooms elsewhere in the city.

Details on how the council will bridge a funding gap which could reach £19.3m have not been provided, ­although it is thought the cost of proposed works could be contained within the council’s existing borrowing limit.

But even if education bosses are able to negotiate a loan to fund their entire rising rolls programme, the city is facing a total provisional charge – ­including interest over a 20-year period – of £56m.

Council leaders stress the expense cannot be avoided.

“South Morningside, in ­particular, is a three-site ­primary which highlights that there’s a real need to deliver a permanent solution,” said Cllr Godzik.

“Building a new school is back on the agenda after being forgotten for the best part of two decades. A new primary school is the most logical solution but there are advantages and disadvantages to all of the possible solutions that we can put forward. It’s incumbent on us to have a discussion on these with parents and the school communities.”

The proposal to build a new primary in south Edinburgh has also received strong backing from parents at the three primaries, who warned against “carving up” schools to create teaching space.

In a deputation due to be presented to education bosses 
today, leaders of James Gillespie’s parent council welcomed the information provided on the new proposals but say not enough has been done to address the particular challenges faced by their school.

They state: “We are especially concerned that the particular characteristics of James Gillespie’s Primary School are not emphasised in the paper before you today.

“Our school is a small, open-plan building constructed at a time of budget constraint, and suffers from significant issues of noise and lack of general purpose space. The whole school will be affected by rising rolls, not just the P1 intake, and the impact on teaching and learning across the whole school must be considered.”

Antonis Giannopoulos, chair of Bruntsfield Primary parent council, said: “We are coping. At the moment things are not desperate but if the numbers continue to rise, other measures have to be found. There’s no easy solution to this.

“The situation is more urgent for South Morningside and James Gillespie’s but we do not want to be complacent. Overall for the area, a new school is a good idea. It takes pressure from everybody – it would be the right thing to do.”

Cllr Melanie Main, Green education spokeswoman and councillor for Meadows-Morningside, said: “Families in the area need a clear decision.”

SITE OPTIONS

EARLY “investigatory” work into possible sites for a new school is under way:

• Astley Ainslie Hospital was an early suggestion, after education chiefs said they were in “active” discussions with NHS bosses, but no certainty on this option has yet been offered.

• Craighouse was touted during early discussions but now appears firmly off the agenda.

• With plans under way for a massive redevelopment of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital in Morningside, could land here be freed up for a new primary?

‘WE HAVE SOME DILAPIDATED BUILDINGS’

HOWARD Kippax, whose child attends South Morningside, said he and other parents at the crowded school were firmly behind the construction of a new primary in the south of the city.

While praising the efforts of the headteacher to contain the effect of rising rolls, the 40-year-old dad said accommodation problems had created “issues” with gym and dining provision at the school, with some children having to eat lunch at their desks.

And he said there were particular concerns among parents that the school playground is a third the size it should be given South Morningside’s 596-strong roll.

Mr Kippax, also a member of the school’s parent council, said: “We think it’s great that the council is addressing the need for a new school in south Edinburgh but we note that there’s no detail on funding and no committed site.

“The existing school is pretty full and we have some dilapidated buildings on-site – these things will only create more difficulties for children if the school becomes even more crowded.”

He added: “There have been issues with planning in the past but the current administration is looking to deal with that.

“We want to look forward and work with the council and help them make the right decisions.”