IT must have started as any other school day. Dragging herself from bed, breakfast eaten, uniform on, school bag in hand, lunch money demanded and out the door, perhaps with just a “see you later” shouted over her shoulder.
There would have been no need for lingering hugs or affirmations of familial love. It was just an ordinary Tuesday morning. A rainy Tuesday morning.
The bell at Liberton High would have rung, registration would have been taken amid the chatter of easily excitable first year pupils. And then they would be off to first period classes.
For Keane Wallis-Bennett and her classmates, that meant PE. Which took place in the “old” gym hall as it was later described in shocked, tear-choked voices of children being taken home by anguished parents as they, the teachers, the city and mostly the family of Keane, struggled to understand how a child could go to school in the morning and not come home again because the very fabric of the school building was unsafe.
School is a place of safety. Not always from other pupils, of course, as for some children it can mean running the gauntlet of bullies, and not always from the harsh words and sarcasm of some teachers. But for the majority, high school is where they learn to cope with the changes that life as a teenager brings, it’s where they make friendships which last a lifetime, it’s where they grow up. School is most certainly not a place where children die.
In this first world country where there is no shortage of money for big, shiny, new projects, never should it have to cross the mind of any parent, any teacher, any child in Edinburgh, that going to school could kill because the very walls could collapse.
Twelve-year-old Keane, from Fernieside, was killed just before 10am on Tuesday, April 1. A wall in that “old gym” changing room collapsed on top of her slight body. A wall which had already, according to pupils, been reported as being loose. Being wobbly. Being unsafe.
Speculation about why the wall crumbled at that moment is useless, distasteful even, while inquiries have only just begun. But there will be demands for answers, from Keane’s family, other parents at Liberton and every other school in Edinburgh.
Right now, though, what we do know is that the repairs needed at Liberton – and many other ageing schools – are not being carried out because there is no money in the council coffers to do so. A total of £80 million is needed to do all the work that’s required and no local authority has that available to spend.
How it got to that situation is a political argument for another time. But given the cash restrictions, the “prioritisation policy” the council adopted for the spending of £30m over the next few years wasn’t necessarily wrong. Some work – making schools wind and water-tight for instance – is more urgent than a new paint job. And Liberton had not been classed as among the worst schools.
What was needed apparently was an upgrade in the gym’s heating and lighting which is to take place later this year. A survey of the school made no mention of the modesty wall in the changing room – or indeed any others – needing to be reinforced.
Was it an oversight? Is there a lack of expertise or manpower available in the council’s property services department which has been mired in the statutory notice scandal controversy?
Answers will come in due course. But certainly the pupils knew it was unsafe. They had, apparently, told teaching staff. Did those teachers act on the information? I cannot imagine that the headteacher, Stephen Kelly, or any PE staff, would allow children to be in a room if there was knowledge of how unsafe this wall was. They would be all too aware of their duty of care – especially after a pupil fell down a faulty lift shaft in the school two years ago.
Parents will want to know how this could have happened. Because it never should have.
No matter the result of the investigations now being conducted by the Health and Safety Executive, Edinburgh City Council and the police, that is the basic fact.
It should never have happened and today Keane – and every other pupil – should be at school and feeling full of that pent-up excitement that always builds in the week before the school holidays.
Keane should be planning the buying – and eating – of Easter eggs and soaking up even more trivia about her pop favourites One Direction. Her parents, Clark Bennett and Abbie Wallis, should not be planning her funeral.