Call to speed up repairs to dilapidated schools

Keane Wallis-Bennett. Picture: Comp
Keane Wallis-Bennett. Picture: Comp
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THE Scottish Government and city council were today facing growing pressure to ensure the Capital’s £30 million schools repair programme is rapidly accelerated.

Demands for a deal to speed-up the current five-year programme came as a former member of Liberton staff reportedly claimed that safety concerns were raised about the wall which collapsed killing 12-year-old Keane Wallis-Bennett at least five years ago.

The concerns are said to have been raised by teachers as far back as 2009, although it is not clear whether any formal complaint was made. The former member of staff is being urged to speak to police so that their evidence can be fully investigated.

The development comes amid a growing consensus that the city’s current plans to bring all schools up to scratch within five years is far too slow.

The city council is being urged to borrow money to ensure work starts as soon as possible and the Scottish Government is facing calls to step in with emergency funding.

With nearly 7000 pupils across the Capital being taught in schools which have or are close to showing major defects, critics say it is imperative the timescale for work is reduced substantially.

Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray said closer working between the Scottish Government and the council would enable crucial school upgrades to get under way more quickly.

He said: “The council is strapped for cash, as are most organisations. If they need £30m then the only way they could possibly do this quicker – which is what we want – is to get more resources.

“The only way they can do that is to get them from the Scottish Government. This is a real opportunity for the council and the Scottish Government to work together to identify additional resources to ensure this five-year time scale is minimised.”

As a joint inquiry by police and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) enters its second week, opposition leaders have urged city chiefs to be bold in devising new ways of accessing extra funding.

Councillor Melanie Main, education spokeswoman for the city’s Greens, said it was right to ask questions about the timing of school works and suggested that advance borrowing may be one way of enabling the programme to be completed more quickly.

She said: “The £31m improvement programme over five years was always a compromise between what is needed – much more – and what was available so it is right to look again at the timing of the works. Bringing forward borrowing a year or two should be achievable, so needs to be seriously considered. And we need to look in detail again at what is planned when – early priority must be given to structural improvements if there is even a hint of risk.”

Lindsay Law, parent representative on the city’s education committee, also said she would like to see school repairs happening sooner. “If these works are required the council need to seek additional funding from central government,” she said.

“If the time scales are being affected by the fact it doesn’t have enough money then they need to look somewhere else for that money. This is too important to leave it for years and years while things deteriorate further.

“I would be calling to urgently look at the schools that we found to be in the same condition or worse than Liberton, and re-assess whether these repairs need to be done more quickly.”

She also called for a more stringent survey of buildings across the city to establish whether other works need to be carried out more quickly than initially thought,clearer accountability and a possible review of the procedure for reporting safety concerns.

“They need to review the lines of communication to make sure that everyone understands that if someone reports a safety concern, everyone knows who to report it to,” she said. “Who takes ownership of it? Is it the headteacher?”

City leaders – who have demolished a free-standing wall at Craiglockhart Primary as part of an Edinburgh-wide sweep of structures similar to the one which collapsed at Liberton High – said they would do “everything in their power” to prevent a repeat of last Tuesday’s tragedy.

Councillor Jason Rust, education spokesman for the city’s Conservatives, said: “I think the main focus has to be the inquiry at Liberton.

“But yes, if more checks are being carried out at other establishments in the city then that’s welcome. I think the next steps will all depend on the outcome of the inquiry.”

Council chief executive Sue Bruce said: “Over 200 council facilities have now been inspected, including all primary, secondary, special and nursery schools, plus sports, leisure and community centres. Our focus has been on identifying and inspecting free-standing walls.

“A member of staff at Craiglockhart Primary School made us aware of an external free-standing wall which he felt merited further inspection and, as a result, this has now been removed.”

She added: “We will use the Easter holiday period to determine what, if any, further action is required across our estate.”

Government ministers acknowledged the public demand for robust action to clear the backlog of essential repair work but said the joint probe by police and HSE officers should remain the “immediate focus”. A Scottish Government spokesman said: “While the Scottish Government is always open for discussion with local authorities on issues of funding we are already putting significant investment into the £1.25 billion Scotland’s Schools for the Future programme, which is undertaken by working in partnership with local authorities to tackle the worst condition schools.

“This is in addition to capital allocation for councils and is being used to directly fund new schools and the refurbishment of existing schools.”

Ten key questions that MUST be answered

An inquiry by police and the Health and Safety Executive into the Liberton High tragedy is now in its second week.

City leaders have demolished one free-standing wall at Craiglockhart Primary School after a city-wide sweep of council properties to establish where there are structures similar to the one that collapsed, killing Keane. However, here are ten key questions which still have to be answered:

1. What warnings were given to school staff about the defective wall and when?

2. What action was taken as a result?

3. Was the wobbly wall recorded in the janitor’s weekly log of repairs needing carried out?

4. Given the problem appeared to be common knowledge among pupils, what had members of staff noticed?

5. When was the modesty wall built and by whom?

6. Had there been any history of faults with it before it was seen wobbling in recent months?

7. When exactly was the last survey carried out on the old gym?

8. How detailed was the survey ordered and did it include checking the building was structurally sound?

9. How detailed and how regular have the surveys carried out on other school buildings across Edinburgh been?

10. Did the crisis in the property conservation department have any impact on checks on the safety of school buildings?