Grant Laurenson: Closure of Castlebrae will punish community

Castlebrae Community High School
Castlebrae Community High School
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The threat to close Castlebrae Community High School is the greatest attack Edinburgh has seen on education so far this century.

The last administration closed seven primary schools but held back from the secondaries. In Labour’s first year of office, it is proposing the closure of the smallest high school in the poorest part of the city.

In trying to paint a negative picture of the school, education bosses have ignored the fact that Castlebrae’s problems are wholly attributable to the failure of Craigmillar’s regeneration. Since 1997, the council has demolished around 3,000 homes in Greendykes and Niddrie Mains and replaced them with about 1,600 out of a planned 4,250.

Hundreds of families have been sent to live elsewhere, resulting in a big drop in ten-to-fifteen year-olds in the catchment area. Of the homes that are being built, far fewer are family homes than the council’s planning department had aimed for. Craigmillar is becoming a place for the old and the childless, something which will be exacerbated if the high school closes.

Castlebrae has other unique problems, though. It is out of the way and quite distant from half of its feeder primaries. One of those feeder primaries, Prestonfield, has dual feeder status with Liberton High. No-one from Prestonfield has gone to Castlebrae for years because not only class, but distance, mitigate against it. Yet the education department fails to consider that and the frequency of buses as a factor in discouraging school choice. Another of Castlebrae’s feeder primaries is in far-off Newcraighall – but most pupils go onto Holy Rood (partly because of a free bus pass) or Portobello High (most parents there own cars, so the journey time is only eight minutes).

There is a problem with parental choice, too – all the surrounding high schools are in affluent areas. And since all schools in the city have a falling roll at S1, there is recently greater capacity for pushy parents to secure a place for their kids at these schools. Holy Rood High gets many of the pupils that should be going to Castlebrae. Indeed, Holy Rood High has been well-favoured by the council. Their old school, built in 1973, was demolished and replaced with a new school in 2009 with state-of-the-art facilities. Castlebrae was built in the mid-60s and is falling apart. Forty-four per cent of the pupils have Additional Support Needs for learning. The average Edinburgh school has ten per cent of its pupils with ASN. Wester Hailes Education Centre (WHEC) comes nearest to Castlebrae, with 24 per cent. Yet in spite of this, for three of the past five years, Castlebrae has outperformed both Craigroyston and WHEC in terms of the percentage of pupils moving into a positive destination.

Educational outcomes are not the only way to judge a school. Castlebrae excels at vocational training. Its courses in hairdressing, engineering, construction and retail prepare youngsters for jobs. The Director of Education recently admitted that 17 Portobello High S4 pupils attend Castlebrae for hairdressing each year. Castlebrae’s unique Family Centre, which enables parents to study at the school and help make it into a true community school, takes work experience pupils from other schools each year.

Even if space at neighbouring schools can be found to accommodate any of these facilities, there is no chance that they will all be provided together, in the same place. And this is what makes Castlebrae special, and why I think it matters more than any other in the city.

Because it is in the poorest area, with 46 per cent of the population income deprived. Because it has 44 per cent ASN pupils. Its excellent vocational programmes mean that, in spite of these factors, it frequently outperforms other similar schools in terms of positive destinations. It deserves an award, not a closure.

Part of the school’s success is down to its low school roll. Everyone accepts that small class sizes with lots of individual attention are the best way to educate kids in disadvantaged areas. ASN pupils will be more expensive to educate, too. The £10,613 spent on each pupil is worth every penny if it gets them into jobs.

Let us be under no illusion that Castlebrae pupils will fare better at other, more academic schools. The council notes that Castlebrae has an 81 per cent attendance rate, compared to an average of 89 per cent at surrounding schools. How can anyone really believe the attendance rate for Craigmillar kids would improve if they have an extra two-mile commute, twice a day-a 30-minute journey, 20 minutes of which would be by bus?

If Castlebrae’s pupils are transferred to Portobello High (the one that’s falling down and needs replaced) then a child will be going from a school of 200 pupils to one of 1300 pupils. How can the Director of Education claim they’ll get the same kind of individual attention? All the evidence points to the opposite being the case.

Unlocking Craigmillar’s regeneration is one of the two keys to solving Edinburgh’s housing shortage (the other being the Waterfront). Put in the infrastructure (a new high school now) and developers and new houses will follow.

What better way to spend public cash? And save the anguish of 200 pupils.

• Grant Laurenson is a member of the Save the Brae campaign.

‘MUCH TO OFFER’

Last month, councillors at an education committee meeting approved plans to consult on the closure of Castlebrae Community High School following poor exam results and a falling school roll.

It is anticipated that the 200 pupils at the Craigmillar school will transfer to Liberton, Portobello and Holy Rood high schools following the proposed closure next summer.

The current roll at Castlebrae is the lowest in the city and just a third of its 600-pupil capacity.

However, parents have expressed fears their children will be bullied and “victimised” at other schools, and underlined that there were various vocational courses on offer at Castlebrae, ranging from hairdressing to mechanics, which were also popular among pupils from other schools.