School closures: Independent inquiry to start once schools reopen

Work continues on Oxgangs Primary School. File picture: Toby Williams
Work continues on Oxgangs Primary School. File picture: Toby Williams
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AN independent inquiry into Edinburgh’s school closures crisis is set to start once all the buildings affected have reopened after the summer holidays.

Council chiefs are looking for an industry specialist to chair the investigation and hope it will report in “a matter of months”.

Council leader Andrew Burns said: “We want this to come back as quickly as possible because parents as well as us want answers as to how this has happened.”

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Seventeen schools in the Capital built under a private finance contract were forced to remain closed after the Easter holidays because structural faults had been discovered. Thousands of pupils have had their education disrupted while further checks were carried out. Edinburgh Schools Partnership, the consortium responsible for the buildings, has now drawn up a programme of work to deal with the construction failings and is promising all the schools will be reopened by the start of the new term in August.

Cllr Burns confirmed the inquiry would include looking at the private finance contract as well as the construction process.

And he said the council would be pressing ESP to cover the cost of the inquiry and the associated legal costs.

He said he hoped the inquiry would be “quick, focused and sharp and comes back with a conclusion promptly” but it also had to be thorough.

“It needs to get to the bottom of how this has happened.

“I have said all the indications we are getting is that it’s a construction not a contract issue, but we need that formally established and we need to be sure that any lessons from this are learned not just by Edinburgh but by other local authorities.”

Cllr Burns said there was a “coherent plan” for retro-fitting the engineering solutions to deal with the structural issues at the affected schools.

“Whilst the first focus was safety, the second focus was getting pupils back into education, the third focus is getting the schools reopened and it is not until we have got all the schools reopened on August 17 or 18 that we will press the button on the inquiry commencing.

“We need to get that resolved we need to get the legalities out of the way between ourselves and ESP. When that is finished - that will be August 17 or 18 - the inquiry can commence.”

He said all party groups on the council would be consulted on the terms of the inquiry and the choice of chair.

“Andrew Kerr the chief executive is also actively attempting to locate an appropriate independent chair to lead the inquiry. That is likely to be somebody with industry experience of construction engineering and experience of the type of contract that we’ve got that led to the schools.

“Scotland is quite a small community, so we might look beyond the boundaries of Scotland for an independent chair but we are still working on that.”

Cllr Burns said there were likely to be legal documents which formed part of the inquiry which could not be made public for reasons of commercial confidentiality, but all councillors would be able to view these in private.

Problems began in January when a wall at Oxgangs Primary School partially collapsed during a storm.

Faults were later discovered with the school’s wall ties, and three other schools were quickly shut.

Inspections were carried out by ESP – without council oversight – and the consortium gave the go-ahead for the facilities to reopen after the Easter break. But fresh flaws were then unearthed during repairs and this decision was quickly reversed.