Council faces parents revolt over school closures review

Can Edinburgh councillors follow the example of East Renfrewshire? Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Can Edinburgh councillors follow the example of East Renfrewshire? Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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PARENTS today warned incoming city council leaders they face a fight if they attempt to close more schools, as the new coalition administration announced a review into under-occupation.

Education chiefs want to open the Capital’s half-empty schools to local community groups to justify keeping them open – but could not rule out potential closures in the years to come.

Headteachers have for the past two years called for the closure of half-empty schools to mitigate budget cuts.

Education bosses in the previous Lib Dem-SNP administration had to close seven primary schools in recent years, all of which had occupancy rates of less than 60 per cent.

Last year, the same politicians ruled out any new closures until last week’s elections, but could not give any guarantees beyond that.

The review is one of around 50 pledges set out by the new administration. Other key policies include providing new affordable housing for families and encouraging the development of gap sites. It also pledges to introduce the £7.20 living wage, which would cost the council around £3.3 million per year, but benefit 1800 low-paid council staff.

However, opponents accused the new administration of taking credit for decisions taken just weeks ago under their predecessors.

Today, parents said they would fight any attempts to return to the programme of closures which first began in 2007.

In November, the Evening News revealed that 16 primary schools were less than 60 per cent occupied, along with three secondary schools.

Colinton Primary was just 40 per cent full while Castlebrae Community High School in Craigmillar was just under 60 per cent full.

The review is yet to begin, but those with a large number of empty spaces will be at the top of the list. Parents said major developments in the area around Craigmillar, for example, would bring hundreds of new families to the school and any potential closure would be short-sighted.

Launching their joint manifesto, new city council leader-elect Andrew Burns and his deputy Steve Cardownie said the review was necessary but insisted closure would be the last option.

Councillor Burns said: “It’s too early to say. We’ve both got aspirations in our manifestos to see more community use for schools so there might be other ways of using the buildings.

“We’re going to commence a study to look at the overall school estate. We’re going to take our time, listen to input then make a decision.”

Officials will examine other uses for the buildings, including opening up buildings for community use and introducing nursery facilities. One of the first moves by the previous Lib Dem-led administration was to embark on a series of school closures to deal with budget cuts, but they were forced into a major U-turn after their SNP coalition partners refused to back them. Plans for school closures included three secondaries – Drummond, Castlebrae and Wester Hailes Education Centre.

Iain Kay, whose daughter Rachel is sitting her Highers at Castlebrae, sat on the parent-teacher council and fought the attempted closure in 2007. He said council leaders need to consider future demand for places.

The 42-year-old said: “Castlebrae is a great school. The education levels and conditions are very good and a huge number of pupils have been able to go on to college of university.

“It might well be at the early stages now, but I just think the council can come up with better. What the council don’t take any notice of is there are new houses being built and there is going to be more provision for 300-400 kids minimum. That would fill Castlebrae completely.

“The kids would need to travel to Liberton, two buses away, or Portobello, which has its own problems. If the council tried to close Castlebrae there would be quite an uprising in Craigmillar.”

Also on the list of under-used schools is Leith Primary, near Leith Links, which is only 60 per cent full. Parent Elaine Ritch, who has three children at the school, said its small classes created good conditions for teaching, and that it also functions as an after-school club.

She added: “The classes are smaller at Leith Primary. It’s a nice small school and the headteacher knows all their names. Last year Leith Primary had three P1 classes, up from two, so it is getting more pupils. They hold the after-school club because there’s a lot of space.”

Despite the reluctance to close schools, education chiefs face a huge challenge to balance the books. Figures from the end of last year showed there were 5298 spare places across Edinburgh’s schools, which is the equivalent of 13 schools with two classes per year group. Headteachers across the Capital believe closing schools is preferable to unmanageable budget cuts.

Gavin Corbett, the newly elected Green councillor, has been closely involved in Craiglockhart Primary’s parent council in recent years and at one stage launched a campaign to attract new families to the school.

He said the school closure campaign of 2007 was for the most part unjustified: “We were very critical of most of the school closures programme. There was one or two where we accepted they had gone beyond the point where they were viable, but most we were critical of.

“We’d be disappointed if school closures loomed like a shadow over communities again. We want to want to see the council think more imaginatively about opportunities to use schools, to co-locate nurseries in them, and day care within schools. We know now some of the schools closed in recent years have cost a fortune in security and making good vandalism.”

Cllrs Burns and Cardownie insisted that the review would also examine overcrowded schools. Cllr Cardownie said in some cases closure for under-resourced schools had benefited pupils. He said: “We said in our manifesto, and it is no doubt echoed by Labour, that any decision we make on schools will be in the best educational interest of the pupils – and will not be taken for any purely financial reasons. I asked that some of the pupils at schools closed be tracked at their new school and all the information I got back was that they were doing tremendously.”

But Lib Dem councillor Paul Edie said: “I welcome finding ways to make half-empty schools less of a drain on the budget but the key question is how will that improve attainment levels?”

Speaking at the launch of the joint manifesto, Cllr Burns added: “We are absolutely delighted with the coalition agreement. This administration is going to be very different from what’s gone before. It’s going to be open and inclusive. We are going to listen and relentlessly look forward and focus on what is best for the capital city.”

Trams line extension a long way off

THE city council’s new leaders have not ruled out extending the Capital’s tram line, but said construction was years away and would depend on a public vote.

Council leader-elect Andrew Burns stressed that his SNP colleagues were likely to hold a referendum before further expansion and said feasibility studies on extending the tram scheme had already taken place as part of a Bill submitted for the proposed Line 3 to the south of the city.

He said: “Any further developments would be further into the future and frankly, both of us are of the mind that there’s not going to be any further physical line development this side of 2017.”

Councillor Steve Cardownie, Cllr Burns’ deputy, confirmed it was unlikely work on any extension would begin before 2017 and added that the cost of new feasibility studies would be a determining factor before they were approved.

He said: “The last thing we want is to cut a huge amount of money once more before asking the Edinburgh public whether or not they’re satisfied with a proposal to extend the tram.

“For us I don’t think we’ll close our eyes to doing further developmental theory work in terms of the tram, but as Andrew says, a lot of that already exists.”

SNP/Labour coalition pledges

To ensure that every child in edinburgh gets the best start in life, we will:

• Hold the maximum P1 class size at 25 and seek to reduce class sizes in line with Scottish Government recommendations.

• Rebuild Portobello High School and continue progress on all other planned school developments, while providing adequate investment in the fabric of all schools.

• Draw-up a long-term strategic plan to tackle both overcrowding and underuse in schools.

• Seek to ensure the smooth introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence and that management structures within our schools support the new curriculum.

• Establish city-wide childcare co-operatives for affordable childcare for working parents.

To reduce poverty, inequality and

deprivation, we will:

• Further develop the Edinburgh Guarantee to improve work prospects for school-leavers.

• Make sure the city’s people are well-housed, including encouraging developers to build residential communities, starting with brownfield sites.

• Work in partnership with the Scottish Government to release more funds for council homes for rent.

• Set up a task force to investigate ways to bring empty homes into use.

• Encourage the development of co-operative housing arrangements.

• Work with health, police and third-sector agencies to expand existing and effective drug and alcohol treatment programmes.

• Enforce tenancy agreements (council and private landlord) with a view to ensuring tenants and landlords fulfil their good conduct responsibilities.

• Strengthen council housing allocation policy to give recognition to good tenants and to encourage responsible tenant behaviour and responsibilities.

To provide for Edinburgh’s economic

growth and prosperity, we will:

• Work with public organisations, the private sector and social enterprise to promote Edinburgh to investors.

• Examine ways to source new funding to support small businesses.

• Continue efforts to develop the city’s gap sites and encourage regeneration.

• Complete the tram project in accordance with current plans.

• Keep Lothian Buses in public hands and encourage the improvement of routes and times.

• Work with the Scottish Government to deliver a larger return of business rate receipts as part of the business rate incentivisation scheme.

• Consult further on the viability and legality of a transient visitor levy.

• Set up an independent forum to promote locally-owned retail businesses.

• Identify unused council premises to offer on short low-cost lets to small businesses, community groups and other interested parties.

• Maintain and enhance support for our world-famous Festivals and events.

• Introduce a “living wage” (currently set at £7.20) for council employees, encourage its adoption by council subsidiaries and contractors and its wider development.

• Establish a policy of no compulsory redundancies.

• Seek to work in full partnership with council staff and their representatives.

• Further strengthen our links with the business community by developing and implementing strategies to promote and protect the economic wellbeing of the city.

• Ensure the council continues to take on apprentices and steps up efforts to prepare young people for work.

• Continue to maintain a sound financial position, including long- term financial planning.

• Maintain our city’s reputation as the cultural capital of the world by continuing to support and invest in our cultural infrastructure.

To strengthen and support our communi

ties and keep them safe, we will:

• Develop and strengthen local community links with the police.

• Strengthen Neighbourhood Partnerships and further involve local people in decisions on how Council resources are used.

• Work with police on an anti-social behaviour unit to target persistent offenders.

• Continue to develop the diversity of services provided by our libraries.

• Develop improved partnership working across the Capital and with the voluntary sector to build on the “Total Craigroyston” model.

• Examine ways to bring the Council, care home staff and users together into co-operatives to provide the means to make life better for care home users and care providers.

• Promote direct payments in health and social care.

• Establish a Care Champion to represent carers.

• Work with Edinburgh World Heritage Trust and other stakeholders to conserve the city’s built heritage.

• Take firm action to resolve issues surrounding the Council’s property services.

• Continue to support and invest in our sporting infrastructure.

• Invest in healthy living and fitness advice to those in most need.

To maintain and enhance the quality of

life in Edinburgh we will:

• Prioritise keeping our streets clean and attractive.

• Spend 5% of the transport budget on provision for cyclists.

• Consult with a view to extending the current 20mph traffic zones.

• Set up a city-wide Transport Forum of experts and citizens to consider our modern transport needs.

• Use Green Flag and other strategies to preserve green spaces.

• Continue to increase recycling levels and reduce the proportion of waste going to landfill.

• Meet greenhouse gas targets, including the national target of 42% by 2020.

• Investigate introduction of low-emission zones.

• ppose industrial biomass incineration in Edinburgh.