School closures: Union backs public-private partnership review

The crisis was sparked by a wall collapse at Oxgangs Primary School earlier this year. Picture: Toby Williams
The crisis was sparked by a wall collapse at Oxgangs Primary School earlier this year. Picture: Toby Williams
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A TEACHING union head has joined calls for a review of all public private partnership (PPP) contracts in Scotland as 17 PPP schools are set to close due to safety fears.

Approximately 9,000 pupils are unable to return to classes after the Easter holidays on Monday.

We believe it is now necessary for an urgent review of all PPP/PFI contracts, including the terms of the private maintenance contracts which are often both expensive and extremely restrictive.

Larry Flanagan

The shock closure of the Edinburgh schools, all built under the same PPP1 contract, was prompted after workers repairing serious structural issues at one city primary found “further serious defects” with the building on Friday.

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Edinburgh Schools Partnership (ESP), which operates the schools, could not provide safety assurances and the local authority decided to close the schools and a neighbourhood centre from Monday.

The closures include 10 primary schools, five secondaries and two additional support needs schools - and the Goodtrees Neighbourhood Centre.

Now, the head of Scotland’s largest teaching union has joined politicians calling for a review of all PPP and similar private finance initiative (PFI) deals.

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: “The EIS welcomes that the safety of pupils and staff is being treated as a priority, while recognising that these short-notice closures will be highly inconvenient for pupils and parents.

“However, we must also question how such significant defaults could escape normal building control scrutiny and we believe it is now necessary for an urgent review of all PPP/PFI contracts, including the terms of the private maintenance contracts which are often both expensive and extremely restrictive.”

Scottish Green candidate for Lothian, Andy Wightman, and Edinburgh Southern SNP candidate Jim Eadie previously called for the contracts to be investigated.

Mr Eadie said the closures had come at “incredibly important time” and could affect pupils’ performances in upcoming exams.

Scottish Government officials have asked all councils across Scotland to conduct “any necessary checks” on their own buildings following the closure decision and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon chaired an emergency meeting of the government’s resilience committee on Saturday.

Edinburgh City Council leader Andrew Burns said the council had “no option” but to close the schools.

He added: “Clearly we have every right to expect these schools to have been built to a good standard and in accordance with industry practice. We now know this isn’t the case. ESP have let the council down but more importantly they have the let children, parents and staff of this city down.”

Parents of pupils at the schools affected are due to be updated on “contingency arrangements” by council officials on Monday.

An ESP spokeswoman apologised and said the partnership would accept “full financial responsibility”.

She added: “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 City Council said surveys are being carried out on secondary schools as a priority as S4, S5 and S6 pupils are preparing for exams in the coming weeks and an update for these buildings is expected by Tuesday.

Organisations across the city, including Edinburgh University, have offered support to put contingency arrangements in place.

Edinburgh City Council chief executive Andrew Kerr said: “I today sought assurances from ESP that their ongoing programme of inspections would give us the confidence to reopen our schools. I have offered to help them secure the necessary resources to complete this as quickly as possible.

“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.”