Martin Hannan: We can’t ignore school protest

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Some weeks ago in this column, I aired my suspicions that Castlebrae Community High School in Craigmillar would not be closed with 
impunity.

I argued that everyone connected with the school should be allowed to state the case to keep it open, and tonight will see the first of four public consultation meetings at which Edinburgh City Council will hear the views of parents and the public about the closure.

At the meeting in the school, parents will be putting their concerns directly to the convener of the education, children and families committee, Councillor Paul Godzik, and the council’s director of children and families, Gillian Tee.

I suspect the council representatives might be in for a hard time, though proceedings must be conducted in a sensible fashion. Feelings always run high on school closures, but Cllr Godzik and Ms Tee are there to hear reasoned arguments and that is the way the campaigners should go forward, for there are plenty of very good reasons why Castlebrae should remain open at this time.

The SavetheBrae organisation has clearly been doing its homework and its paper challenging the council’s reasons for closing Castlebrae is masterly.

You can read the full list at www.savethebrae.co.uk, a website whose very existence shows that the council is up against a well-organised, well-informed campaign.

I’ll take just a couple of its points. Dealing with the proposal to transfer Castlebrae’s pupils to Portobello High – you know, the one that’s falling down so badly that it needs replaced – SavetheBrae says: “If a child goes from a school of 200 pupils at CCHS to Portobello High (which is the largest school in Edinburgh) with 1305 pupils – how can anyone say they’ll get the same kind of individual attention? All the evidence points to the opposite being the case.”

The paper further states that “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?”

These are good strong points and need to be answered. There are some points made by SavetheBrae which are a bit dubious logically, but the thrust of the argument is cogent – the council has to prove that closing Castlebrae will be better for the pupils.

I will always maintain that if a school is failing its pupils then it is not fit for purpose and should be closed. By the usual systems of analysis of these things, Castlebrae is a candidate for closure – no question about it.

So the argument to keep it open may yet have to be made on different grounds, and the clue is the name – Castlebrae COMMUNITY High School. For anyone who knows Craigmillar knows just how vital the school is to the community that surrounds it.

I have always detested what I call EH16itis, that curious phenomenon in which this entire area of the city is dismissed as a sink estate not worthy of being included with the rest of us. It is a bleak legend perpetuated by such bodies as insurance companies who automatically increase premiums for cars and houses based in EH16 because of the higher percentage of claims from there in the past.

Challenge the institutions that decry Craigmillar and Niddrie, as well as Pilton and Wester Hailes, and you find that they have rarely sent a representative to view those areas. Certainly in Craigmillar, anyone going there who had not been in the area for, say, a decade, would find it transformed.

The problem is that it has not been transformed enough, the housing recession having hit the ParcLife project – it was supposed to build a new school for the area, don’t forget – in particular. The youngsters who would have filled the new school or Castlebrae from the planned housing are just not there because the houses aren’t there.

Yet those houses will come along and I believe that Craigmillar has a bright future. I also believe that Castlebrae should be part of that future if the community case can be made for the school.

SavetheBrae has made a good start in its campaign to preserve this important asset. Listening to its arguments, and given the uncertain fate of Portobello High, on the face of it you would have to conclude that it is at the least very premature – and at worst just plain daft – to be closing down a school that could be used to relieve the pressure on Porty High. Lest we forget, Porty High has such serious physical problems that some local people feel it might not be able to carry on much longer without the health and safety experts curtailing its use.

The budget saving from closing Castlebrae is minimal in terms of the overall spending of the council, but the loss to Craigmillar of this important part of the community would be overwhelming.

Maybe it is time for the rest of the city to support Craigmillar in its time of need. Things have changed there and will continue to do so. Should the rest of us just ignore the people who are trying to make their community work properly? I think not.