John McLellan: ‘Cinderella’ colleges deserve invite to ball

Portobello High pupils may be able to take business studies at the nearby Edinburgh College campus. Picture: Toby Williams
Portobello High pupils may be able to take business studies at the nearby Edinburgh College campus. Picture: Toby Williams
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Trinity High head Bryan Paterson is not alone in wrestling with the shortage of maths teachers. Portobello High School head Ruth McKay gave it to her parent council straight this week: she has a vacancy for a maths teacher and another for a business studies teacher, and after both were properly advertised recently she has been unable to fill either.

There are three maths posts in Edinburgh Council secondary schools currently available on the public sector jobs website and that doesn’t include the two Trinity can’t fill. In fact there are apparently ten maths vacancies in Edinburgh and about 30 across Scotland.

Demand for housing is outstripping supply. Picture: Jane Barlow

Demand for housing is outstripping supply. Picture: Jane Barlow

And like any job search, it’s not just a case of filling the positions with whoever applies with relevant qualifications; they have to be the right candidates. Most readers will have experience of teachers who were well-qualified and highly knowledgeable, but who just couldn’t teach.

Portobello has not got to the same stage as Trinity in asking parents to help, and is lucky it can call upon expertise at Edinburgh College’s nearby Milton Road campus where new principal Annette Bruton, herself a former school teacher and chief inspector of schools, is driving forward an agenda of school-college partnerships starting as early as Primary 7.

For Portobello students wanting to take business studies, there is a strong chance they will be able to do so at Edinburgh College, which will give them valuable exposure to study in a different environment and help smooth the transition to further and higher education. So out of a recruitment problem may come an opportunity which will enhance their experience, not detract from it.

Scotland’s further education colleges are the lynch-pin for the next phase in the lives of around 220,000 people of all ages, starting with the 20,000 or so who are under 16 and for whom school was obviously not working out. Then there are the school leavers taking vocational training on a full-time or release basis, or following a different route to university. But some 42 per cent of students are over 25, learning valuable new skills when their schooldays are long behind them.

Yet at a recent Edinburgh College briefing, Annette Bruton was as direct as Ruth McKay, saying that the whole sector is in a tenuous financial position. Diplomatically, what she didn’t say in a room with some senior SNP politicians is that the buck stops with the Scottish Government.

That fell to Colleges Scotland chief executive Shona Struthers who, in a letter to a Holyrood’s Public Audit committee this week, said the sector’s financial position was unsustainable. An Audit Scotland report in June this year pointed out that the colleges’ financial position had continued to deteriorate since 2014-15, with the gap between income and expenditure growing to over £8m. “What is seen here is the culmination of the effect of policy and investment decisions taken over a number of years by the Scottish Government,” she wrote.

At the heart of her complaint is the long-standing concern that college budgets are being deliberately squeezed in order to maintain free tuition for Scottish and EU university students and Struthers will have her say at the committee today.

But with colleges taking up some of the slack caused by difficulties in recruiting school teachers, surely it’s high time the Scottish Government stopped treating FE as the Cinderella of education services.

Pupils require some clarity

Students and parents will be back in the routine of the school week by now and for those in exam years the prelims will already be looming large. In previous years the prelim results would help students decide which formal exams to sit, but no longer because the choice must be made in November.

The ongoing upheaval in the exam system doesn’t stop there. As a result of Education Secretary John Swinney’s decision to cut unit assessments to reduce teacher workload, some courses will now have longer exams, some will have more coursework and some will be unaffected.

This may be a good thing, but it will be important for students and parents to understand the implications. So if your school hasn’t organised briefing sessions to explain what’s happening, contact your parent council and get one organised as soon as possible.

Homes supply is building up to crisis point

House buyers in Edinburgh are now paying an average of about ten per cent more than the asking price, according to the latest ESPC report, ample evidence of the impact of a housing shortage which is not about to end any time soon.

The biggest price increase is in Corstorphine and Clermiston, where three-bed homes went up by an astonishing 25 per cent, and two-bed flats in Portobello and Joppa, up a fifth.

The number of new homes coming on to the market rose by less than two per cent in August compared with 2016 and the selling time is just under a fifth faster, another indicator of pent-up demand. Half of all properties are now selling in 15 days or less

With all types and tenures of properties in demand some means of speeding up supply needs to be found very soon.

Are we open for business or not?

The International Business Gateway (IBG) plan for Gogar has long been regarded as a crucial to Edinburgh’s economic growth, with a new district linked to the city by tram and the world by plane.

But not a sod has been cut, and last week’s housing and economy committee heard the scheme is now mired in what was described as “a difference of opinion” with the Scottish Government because Local Government Minister Kevin Stewart does not like the proposed mixture of houses and businesses.

Edinburgh Airport has unveiled a parallel scheme on its rarely-used “cross-wind” runway and chief executive Gordon Dewar is quite open about his desire to break the deadlock over the IBG but also to relieve the log-jam on the airport approach road.

With 1.4 million passengers in both July and August, the airport is at breaking point in peak months and is arguably beyond that now, especially during the Royal Highland Show when the whole Ingliston area grinds to a halt just as the holiday season is beginning.

Unburdened by the need for planning permission, work is now under way on an £80m scheme to add six new gates by next summer, but adding more services will obviously only increase the pressure on a transport network which will remain unchanged.

The announcement of a direct route to Washington DC could be a pivotal moment for both the airport and the city as a whole, but continued confusion about the IBG, or indeed the Crosswind proposal, is in no-one’s interest.

Answers must come quickly

Without in any way wishing to pre-judge the outcome of Lord Hardie’s inquiry into the tram fiasco, three things are coming over loud and clear after a fortnight’s hearings, all of which we knew already; that nobody in the council really understood the contracts, that project officials ran rings round the councillors, and the decision to withdraw Transport Scotland’s expertise was disastrous.

So we need three answers: why the legal agreements were a mess, why councillors were in the dark and what was the real motivation behind the Transport Scotland decision. And as the completion project goes forward, we need to know quickly.