Gina Davidson: The Brae can be a beacon of hope

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THERE is something quite telling about the fact that in the midst of the “regeneration” of one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas – Craigmillar – that a new high school has never been on the agenda.

Well, not until recently when it looked as though the current one, built in the 1960s, was likely to be closed. That was the carrot dangled by the education department – allow us to close your high school now and you’ll get an all-singing, all-dancing one in seven years’ time.

Well maybe. If the funding could be found. If a site could be made available. If the regeneration of the area actually saw more people move in than move out and so warrant a new school being built.

That, after all, is the root of the problem. Massive housing stock demolition has meant a drain of residents. According to the campaign to save the school there have been around 3000 homes in Greendykes and Niddrie Mains demolished and replaced – so far – with 1600 out of a planned 4250. Hundreds of families have been made to move elsewhere, resulting in a fall in kids of school age, and the homes being built are far less family-friendly than promised.

Now there are just 200 pupils at Castlebrae when it’s big enough to hold 600. On purely financial grounds, then, it was obvious the council would want to close the place. So there has been some criticism that it therefore “ducked” the hard 
decision last week, when the Brae was, in fact, saved.

However I don’t believe that’s what happened. Yes there were tearful, emotional deputations begging councillors to give it a stay of execution, but these don’t normally hold much sway. There’s a lot of empathy, but the cold, hard decision is generally still taken – just ask the parents of Burdiehouse, Bonnington or Fort primary schools.

But what has happened with 
Castlebrae is, I believe, a recognition that schools are about more than bricks and mortar and even more than places of education – especially in areas of deprivation. They are, or certainly should be, at the heart of the community. They are certainly the social centre of family life. That’s why Castlebrae has long had the “community” tag in its name.

Without a high school Craigmillar would die a slow death, no matter how much more money was ploughed into regeneration. For what family would move into the area knowing that their children would have to travel some distance to receive a secondary school education? Which pupils, perhaps already demotivated at school, would willingly spend half an hour on the bus trying to get there?

And if new parents in the area listen to what’s said about the school –that it’s rundown, that it’s academic achievements are few, that it’s got loads of kids with “problems” – why would they choose to send their kids there?

However, if they were to hear that the class sizes were small, resulting in more one-to-one education, that the teachers did have troublesome pupils which made them experts in handling such cases, that the school did its utmost to discourage absenteeism and instill a pride about the place in its pupils, that while 44 per cent of pupils require additional learning support it still outperforms similar schools in terms of kids moving into a positive destination, then their attitude might be different.

Obviously there are people who already do think that about Castlebrae. The council appears to be convinced for now, but it still has to decide what to do with it. There is still a need for a new school – possibly smaller and definitely situated better so that people can see it – but that shouldn’t stop any investment in the current school to try to make the most of its small class sizes. And certainly, let it work better and more co-operatively with other high schools around like Portobello, Holyrood and Liberton, but don’t dilute the expertise at Castlebrae by downgrading it to just another school’s annexe.

The community has campaigned and shown that it values the school. But those coming into the school need to show they also value the education on offer. The school obviously does well with voctional courses, but basic grades also need to improve, not just to stop the “failing school” tag every time the disillusioning exam league tables appear, but to actually give pupils a sense of belief that they can go on to further and tertiary education as well as 
apprenticeships.

The link between deprivation, poor school attendance and a future of long-term unemployment, dependence on welfare and poverty needs to be broken and there can’t be better opportunity to do that now with Castlebrae. It’s a school which needs to show the benefit of small rolls – to prove that intensive education is the future, not super-schools with 
thousands of pupils.

It’s a school which needs to instil hope – not alone, but with the full backing of a council which has staked its reputation on co-operative beliefs. By doing that, Castlebrae will ensure it has a long-term future.