Edinburgh school crisis consortium facing million-pound penalty

Work continues on Oxgangs Primary School, Edinburgh. Picture: Toby Williams

Work continues on Oxgangs Primary School, Edinburgh. Picture: Toby Williams

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THE consortium behind the shock closure of 17 city schools faces a hefty financial penalty worth up to millions of pounds, the Evening News can reveal.

Thousands of families are still being kept in the dark after five high schools, ten primaries and two special schools were shut due to concerns over their construction.

Some of the repair work being undertaken at Oxgangs Primary. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

Some of the repair work being undertaken at Oxgangs Primary. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

The decision, which was made late on Friday, has affected around 9000 pupils – many sitting key exams in the next few weeks – and left parents struggling with a childcare nightmare.

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But families are yet to be given a clear picture of when schools might reopen or what contingency plans are being put in place, with officials insisting they hope to provide further updates in the coming days.

It is understood the council could attempt to claw back millions of pounds’ worth of monthly service payments made to the PFI consortium tasked with constructing and maintaining the schools.

Edinburgh Schools Partnership will accept full financial responsibility for investigating and resolving these issues to ensure that each and every PPP1 school undergoes all necessary remedial work.

ESP spokesperson

SCHOOL CLOSURE CRISIS

• Safety fears to shut 17 Edinburgh schools

• Full list of schools affected

• University offers to accommodate students of closed schools

The Evening News has also been told that St Peter’s and Oxgangs primaries – where the discovery of serious structural defects on Friday prompted wider closures – could remain shut for the next couple of weeks.

Last night, education bosses were unable to provide time-scales for the other schools, as they insisted detailed structural surveys were still being carried out to establish whether they were affected.

They said surveys were focusing on secondary schools as a priority, with S4, S5 and S6 pupils at Gracemount, Craigmount, Firrhill, Drummond and Royal High all preparing for exams in the coming weeks. Parents will be updated by tomorrow.

Meanwhile, pupils at Oxgangs Primary, St Peter’s Primary and Braidburn may continue to use alternative contingency arrangements put in place before the Easter break, subject to the necessary transport agreements.

Alternative arrangements for the other schools are still being “actively looked into”, with Edinburgh University and local churches offering their facilities in a bid to help.

All 17 of the affected schools were built or refurbished under the public private partnership (PPP1) agreement in 2001.

The £360 million deal created a PFI consortium called the Edinburgh Schools Partnership (ESP), which includes Miller Construction and the Bank of Scotland.

Since Friday’s shock announcement, the council has slammed ESP for letting down the “children, parents and staff” of Edinburgh, while ESP has pointed the finger at building contractor Miller.

A spokeswoman for ESP said: “The standard of construction carried out by the building contractor is completely unacceptable and we are now undertaking full structural surveys on all PPP1 schools to determine whether this issue is more widespread.

“Edinburgh Schools Partnership will accept full financial responsibility for investigating and resolving these issues to ensure that each and every PPP1 school undergoes all necessary remedial work.”

The closures came after a contractor carrying out repairs at St Peter’s and Oxgangs warned on Friday of “an absence of header ties in sections of the buildings”, making the schools unsafe to occupy. Header ties are structural fixings that attach the top of a wall to the wider building, providing extra reinforcement.

ESP told council officials it could not confirm whether or not the faults existed at other sites, leading to the decision to close all 17 PPP1 schools and Goodtrees Neighbourhood Centre.

Structural problems at Oxgangs were first discovered when part of a wall blew down during Storm Gertrude in January.

The school was closed in March after an investigation found problems with its walls. Three more schools, all part of the same PPP1 contract, closed less than a week later.

At the time, ESP assured the council that all schools would reopen as normal after the Easter holidays.

Politicians are now calling on the council to scrap its contract with ESP and withdraw payments.

Jim Eadie, left, SNP candidate for Edinburgh Southern, said a clause in the original PPP1 contract would allow the council to “step in” and take control of the schools if ESP is unable to fulfil its duties. He said it was now “inconceivable” the contract with ESP could continue.

Safety checks are also being carried out at schools across Scotland which were built by Miller Construction under similar schemes.

Parents said they were “fuming” at the latest developments.

One Oxgangs dad said: “Effectively I’ve had at least one child in an unsafe building for eight years. The council need to admit responsibility and accountability for this mess.”

A spokeswoman for Galliford Try, which bought Miller in 2014, said it “supports the council’s precautionary closures of [the] buildings”.

City chief executive Andrew Kerr said: “The safety of children and our staff is our main priority, and I’m simply not willing to compromise on this.

“I fully recognise the significant inconvenience to parents caused by these closures, but I am sure they will understand why we had to take these steps.

“Officers are continuing to work on contingency arrangements and we will provide regular updates to parents and carers as and when further information becomes available.”

alistair.grant@edinburghnews.com