NEARLY 7000 pupils are being taught in crumbling schools which need urgent repair to make them safe and fit for use.
The Evening News can reveal around 6900 youngsters – 15 per cent of the Capital’s entire roll or around one in every six pupils – attend classes in 19 nursery, primary and secondary schools which have or are close to showing “major defects”.
The startling extent of the city’s crumbling classrooms follows the devastating death of Keane Wallis-Bennett, 12, who died after a “wobbly” modesty wall collapsed on her at Liberton High. Two of the worst-affected primary schools – Nether Currie and Gracemount – have been waiting at least five years for comprehensive repairs and upgrades to their dilapidated campuses.
As police and the Health and Safety Executive begin their probe into the tragedy, education chiefs are pressing ahead with a £30 million emergency investment plan to bring all of Edinburgh’s schools up to a satisfactory standard by 2019. But shocked parents, who have branded the repairs backlog “criminal”, say classrooms cannot wait and are demanding the money is spent immediately.
Chris Heggie, with two sons at Nether Currie Primary, said the ongoing repairs crisis had left him “sickened”.
He said: “It’s criminal that the council can spend a billion-plus on the trams when the schools are in such a state. If this had happened in any other area or public service then they would probably close it down or not open it until the work has been done.
“The city has lost its focus. Education should be a basic. It seems that in poorer countries there are safer schools than there are in Edinburgh – one of the world’s richest capitals.”
Schools – depending on their state of disrepair – are sifted into exam-style grades ranging from A-D set down by the Scottish Government.
Those schools with an A rating are considered to be operating well while those graded B are deemed “satisfactory” and only showing minor signs of deterioration.
But during the most recent condition survey, published at the end of last year, 12 city schools, including two nurseries, were found to be operating at C level, which means they are suffering from major defects and not operating adequately.
And a further seven were found to be in serious danger of slipping from B to C, with emergency cash injections running to hundreds of thousands of pounds needed to maintain their current rating. Union, opposition and parent leaders said the backlog was “not acceptable” and have called on the Scottish Government to step in with extra funding so that no child is left at risk of harm or death in a city school.
With council investigators now examining modesty walls similar to Liberton’s at other schools, critics said the failure of surveyors to identify structural weaknesses in Liberton High’s changing room raised serious questions over the robustness of the council’s entire schools estate probe.
Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary at the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said: “The incident at Liberton begs the question of just how comprehensive the council’s schools review was. I think the whole survey needs to be effectively scrapped and they need to start again.
“And I think there’s no question that government funding should be made available to clear the backlog. We’re talking about the lives of young people and nothing is more precious than that.”
Lindsay Law, parent representative on the council’s education committee, said parents want to understand whether the risk from this wall was highlighted and, if so, why nothing was done about it. She said: “If it wasn’t highlighted in the original surveys, then parents want reassurance that nothing dangerous has been missed at any other school.”
However, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said the city council had done a “good job” maintaining schools in the face of budget cuts.
Asked if there were concerns about health and safety at Liberton High, Mr MacAskill said: “I don’t believe so. The school, as with many schools of that era, the late 50s early 60s, has its challenges.
“But notwithstanding the difficulties with fragmenting and fraying to the fabric, it’s a good school in which the head and past head have done a remarkable job in making it a very good school for the local community.”
But Councillor Melanie Main, education spokeswoman for the city’s Greens, said it was important to allow investigators to complete the task of establishing exactly what went wrong at Liberton. But she added: “More widely, as councillors, we need to reflect the understandable anxiety felt by pupils, parents and other school users across the city.
“For example, the recent condition surveys give us a good overall picture of the state of school buildings but do they tell us enough about each individual building? And, if possible poor conditions are flagged up, either by a survey or by a school user, do more detailed surveys need done or preventative action taken?”
Education leader Paul Godzik said Tuesday’s events had left him “shocked and saddened”. He said: “Our priority as a council is to support Keane’s family and the whole school community. I have visited the school to meet staff and to ensure the immediate and ongoing support they and their pupils require is in place.
“It is important we find out exactly what happened here and as a council we are working closely with the police and Health and Safety Executive as investigations continue.”
The Scottish Government said lessons from Liberton will be acted upon and learnt from. In the meantime its focus is on helping the school through the immediate tragedy. A spokesman said investigating bodies must be allowed “to determine what has happened, through rigorous investigations”.
He said: “We would caution against drawing any general conclusions.”
‘Girly’ girl sadly missed by heartbroken family
Keane’s parents Clark Bennett and Abbie Wallis paid tribute to their “princess” saying she would be “sadly missed by all her family and friends”.
They said the 12-year-old dreamt of becoming prime minister “but failing that, a beautician”.
She was also described as a “girly” girl who loved days out with her friends and couldn’t wait for the upcoming One Direction concert at Murrayfield.
Their statement added: “Keane will be sadly missed by all her family and friends. She recently attended her first under-18s disco and loved every second of it.”
Prime Minister David Cameron, below, also paid tribute to Keane in the House of Commons.
He said: “This was an absolutely shocking accident that people will have seen across the country, and their hearts will go out to the family and all those involved in the school.
“Clearly the lessons will have to be learnt to make sure that accidents like this can’t happen again.”
Police Scotland and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are investigating the tragedy. A programme of building checks by surveyors is under way at the school.
The city council was recently fined £8000 after another pupil, Morgan Seaton, was injured after falling down a lift shaft at the school in December 2011.
Last night, Morgan’s mum, Myra Seaton, said she “could not imagine” what Keane’s parents are going through.
“Morgan was very upset – she’s still got a lot of friends in the school and it was like reliving it,” Mrs Seaton said.