Gina Davidson: Leave school repairs to Government

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IN a day’s time school will be out for summer. Weeks and weeks of empty days lie ahead for the city’s pupils ... no getting up early, no going to bed early, no homework, no keeping quiet and as much running around as they like. Bliss.

But the start of the school holidays will also mark the beginning of a massive round of repairs to Edinburgh’s crumbling school estate. Just yesterday it was revealed that £2.5m will be spent demolishing the old gym at Liberton High, the tragic site of the death of Keane Wallis-Bennett and building a brand new one – with a dance hall in her name – before the pupils head back to their desks in 
August.

Thanks to a collective approach of Edinburgh councillors and MSPs – of differing political colours – to the Scottish Government, funding has been found to get the vital work at Liberton carried out over the 
holidays.

But what about the rest of our schools? Already the council has had to agree emergency measures to build 87 new classroom blocks at eight 
primary schools, to ease overcrowding, at a cost of around £20m. The long-term bill though will be in the region of £32.5m when the money borrowed is paid back.

And then there’s the massive repair bill of £30m over the next five years to make sure that our kids’ schools are safe places in which to be taught. Nearly 7000 pupils are being taught in schools which have or are close to showing major defects. One child has already died because a wall was not safe – no local authority, or family, will want to have to face that tragedy again.

Walls at 13 different schools have had to be bolstered or demolished in the wake of Keane’s death, when an urgent inspection of buildings was ordered. But even prior to that there was a long list of repairs and refurbishment work known to be needing done. None of them, perhaps, affect health and safety, but they nonetheless diminish children’s school experience.

And there’s not enough cash to do the work. That can hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the financial travails of Edinburgh City Council, or indeed of many other local authorities who are shackled when it comes to raising revenue because of the Scottish Government’s council tax freeze.

Of course Edinburgh now has further problems because of the cost of the tram and the money borrowed to pay for the completion of the line, which will undoubtedly impact on the council’s ability to find cash for other things like school 
repairs. Emergencies yes, there will always be money for those, but a long-term maintenance plan for council buildings? Forget it.

There will be those who say that the council has made a mess of it’s financial bedding, so now it must lie on it, but that is hardly fair to the children of Edinburgh who deserve to be taught in buildings which are 
reasonably pleasant places to be.

So where will the money come from for the £30m repairs? Education officials talk about looking at budgets yet again to try and scrape together pennies in the hope they will make pounds, and there are probably more “efficiencies” which can be found, but they will impact on other services. Then there’s the possibility of borrowing – but only for capital projects such as those new classrooms, repairs don’t fall into that category.

And where is the Scottish Government in all this? It has made great play of the council tax freeze, and while that has probably benefited many families otherwise struggling through the recession, it is ultimately a regressive tax, which is now beginning to show its flaws. Then there’s the £1.25 billion Scotland’s Schools for the Future programme, which local authorities can apply to for help tackling schools in the worst condition – by knocking them down and building new ones.

Surely then the Schools for the Future programme parameters need to change. Its scope should widen to allow councils, for the majority like Edinburgh are in the same position, to apply for funding to carry out wind and water-tight repairs to ensure they are done as quickly as possible.

Councils have run out of other funding options, it’s now up to the increasingly centralised Scottish Government to sort this whole mess out.