Martin Hannan: Poor foresight is failing pupils

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Last week I had the experience of reading a heartfelt letter sent by a 12-year-old girl to various people and which was forwarded to me.

The writer is a pupil in S1 at Portobello High School, and her letter was a plea for something to be done about the situation facing her and the other 1400-plus pupils.

I don’t have her permission to quote from the letter, but suffice to say it left no-one who has read it in any doubt about the practical difficulties and sheer misery being experienced by the pupils at Portobello on a daily basis. Separately, I also heard worrying accounts of overcrowding on stairs in the multi-storey building – an accident waiting to happen?

Given the need for something to be done quickly about Porty High, I applaud the city council’s decision to spend around £60,000 seeking clarification of the common good status of Portobello Park which most people in the area agree is the best site for a new school. If the park is decreed to be “inalienable” then the council must find another site and soon, but if the park is not common good then the school must be built there and soon.

The latter option is what the majority of local people want and since the legal procedure being followed by the council is perfectly legitimate and ultimately could be very cost effective, it seems sensible to me that the case should be taken further.

On the same day as I read the pupil’s letter, I heard Councillor Mike Bridgman, a friend and colleague in the SNP, give an impassioned account of the attempts to try and save Castlebrae Community High in Craigmillar.

As a councillor for Portobello/Craigmillar, Mike is well aware of the problems at both schools, and he is doing his level best to try and get a new school for Portobello while trying to keep Castlebrae open.

He is doing that not just because he is a politician but because he is a man steeped in his local community and knows how important schools are to those communities. Indeed, Mike came into politics through the campaign to save Lismore Primary School which sadly was unsuccessful.

I don’t know what the answer is for Castlebrae, which I suspect is suffering from EH16-itis – that persistent snobbery that nothing good can happen in Craigmillar – but the school should be given a chance to make a case for itself. After all, the planned rebuilding of Craigmillar by ParcLife is only being delayed and there will soon be demand for schooling in the area.

The closure of a school is not something anyone takes lightly. Indeed, it still requires ultimate approval by the Education Secretary before a closure can take place.

That is due to a good Scottish concept brought in by no less a person than John Knox and his fellow Protestant Reformers back in the 16th century. A school in every parish was their watchword and that aspiration became a fact and still underpins the Scottish desire for universal education.

The present Education Secretary, Mike Russell, is a good man facing a horrendous situation – modernising Scotland’s education system with the Curriculum for Excellence at the same time as many buildings are collapsing.

Now you can blame successive governments and councils for their failure to maintain school buildings properly, though personally I feel a lot of architects and builders are more responsible for the fact that so many schools built in the 1960s and 70s are falling apart while Victorian-era buildings are still standing proud. We had a massive inquiry into the grossly inflated costs of the Holyrood parliament building, so why not an inquiry into the abject failures of the design and construction industries which have cost this country much, much more than Holyrood ever did.

Whatever the causes of failing buildings, the issue of failing schools is a source of anxiety and has to be dealt with now. By any objective standard, Castlebrae is a failing school, by which I mean that the pupils are not achieving the standards they should because resources – teaching, equipment and parental involvement – are not going into the school for a variety of reasons.

I come from a family of teachers and my late brother-in-law’s mantra just about summed up all their philosophies – “there are no failing pupils, just failing teachers”.

He might reasonably have added “and failing managers and directors”, for what has emerged in piecemeal fashion over recent years is that no-one in senior authority appears to have a vision for education in the state sector in Edinburgh.

While private schools have survived and even prospered – except for the notable loss of St Margaret’s School in 2010 – management in the state sector has struggled with the problems of falling rolls and cuts to budgets.

Through the on-off closure programme and now the problems with Portobello and Castlebrae, I have seen precious few visionary concepts emanating from the education management that either made sense or embraced the Scottish ideal of a school at the centre of its community.

That, to me, is the real reason why Castlebrae is failing and why nothing sensible has been done about Porty High – lack of foresight and imagination on the part of those being paid plenty to provide it.