Capital gets first new primary school in 30 years

South Morningside Primary School. Picture: Greg Macvean
South Morningside Primary School. Picture: Greg Macvean
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EDUCATION chiefs have revealed they plan to build the first new primary school in a generation to tackle chronic overcrowding in classrooms.

Untenable “compound problems” in the south of the city, where classrooms are bursting at the seams and scores of children are being taught in church halls and crumbling prefabs, mean the council will look at spending at least £10 million on the first primary school to be built in Edinburgh since the late 1970s.

Early indications point to the Astley Ainslie Hospital site as a likely location for the school, after education leaders said they were in “active” discussions with counterparts at NHS Lothian about acquiring the land.

The plans come as primaries across the city struggle to cope with rapidly expanding rolls fuelled by rising birth and immigration rates. Although a number of schools in the city have been rebuilt via PFI, this would be the first entirely new school in more than 30 years.

The new facility would alleviate acute pressure at South Morningside Primary, which accommodates three streams of pupils – 21 classes – even though its main building is designed for two.

The school relies on annexes in church halls, one for P1 classes and another for nursery children which is located miles out of its catchment area.

With nearby James Gillespie’s, Sciennes, Preston Street and Bruntsfield

primaries also operating at or close to capacity, councillors have admitted a new school for the area is needed urgently.

Education leader Paul Godzik said: “We recognise there’s frustration in the local community and this is something we want to deliver.

“At this point, we’re in the very early stages. But we are in active discussions with the NHS, we’re aware there’s an issue and we want to continue this dialogue. The new school has been highlighted to the Scottish Futures Trust as a potential project.”

‘Ten years late’

However, parents have criticised current conditions as an “outrage” and called for work on the school to begin as quickly as possible.

One mother at South Morningside Primary, who did not want to be named, said: “This should have been built ten years ago. It’s a nightmare. At the moment, our school is spread over three sites and it’s totally overcrowded.

“I think four of the classrooms are in huts, which are about 30 years old. You have two toilets for 70 children. They were never intended to be used as classrooms for that length of time.”

Violet Varasteh, 41, whose sons, Armeen, six, and Kiyarash, nine, attend South Morningside, said she tried to enrol her children at nearby St

Peter’s RC Primary School after moving to the Capital three years ago but was told she would have to go on a year-long waiting list.

She admitted she was worried about similar overcrowding issues at South Morningside.

“My youngest is in a big class as it is and if there are more coming into the area, he could be affected,” she said.

“It will be more difficult for the teacher to work if the space is under even more pressure – they won’t be able to cover everything they should be covering with the pupils.

“They should build the new school as soon as they can.”

‘Lunch at desks’

Bruce Crawford, chair of Sciennes Primary School parent council, said the school is so cramped children have to eat their lunch at their desks.

He said: “I’m aware we have families moving into the area who cannot get their children into the school because class sizes are at maximum.

“The school’s dining hall isn’t large enough; you have children who have to eat packed lunches at their desks and there’s not a gym hall or space large enough where everyone can gather for assembly. The school’s been using temporary accommodation in the playground for at least ten years now. They’re maintained but you’d rather the children were in a proper building.”

Melanie Main, education spokeswoman for the Capital’s Green group, whose daughter is in P7 at Sciennes, said the plans highlighted the need for a more strategic approach to schools investment.

“We have known for many years that a new primary school for south Edinburgh is needed, so I welcome the commitment to making it happen,” she said.

“Temporary buildings have been used as classrooms in three local schools for many years, and overcrowding has become the norm.

“We really need to have long-term strategy for our schools and our school rolls to avoid such pressure ever building up again.”

Iain Graham, NHS Lothian director of capital projects and planning, said: “There are currently no formal proposals to sell land to City of Edinburgh Council for a new school.

“While the development of the master plan for the redevelopment of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital (REH) will consider relocating some services from Astley Ainslie Hospital (AAH) to REH, the AAH is currently a fully operational site with no surplus land. However, we continue to have regular and positive dialogue with our council colleagues regarding our long-term plans and how that may accommodate their needs for a school.”

Pinch points across city

SOUTH Edinburgh is not the only primary school “pinch point” in the Capital.

Recent figures on occupancy levels during 2012-13 show ten primaries are operating at more than 100 per cent capacity – a 7.5 per cent rise on the previous year.

A further 44 primary schools, just over half of the entire school estate, are functioning with occupancy rates between 81 and 100 per cent. And in another indication of rising rolls, the number of under-occupied primary schools in Edinburgh is falling fast.

There are now only 11 primaries with occupancy of 60 per cent or less – a five per cent drop on 2011-12.

The occupancy spike comes only a few years after the city’s previous Lib Dem-led administration announced plans to shut 22 primary schools, one of the biggest closure programmes in Edinburgh’s history.

The proposals were later scaled back after a rebellion by the Lib Dem’s SNP partners forced a U-turn, with the axe falling on Drumbrae, Burdiehouse, Fort and Royston primary schools.

Council chiefs are scrambling to keep up with the growth in pupil numbers. Planning permission has just been received for extra classrooms at Wardie, Trinity and Granton primaries.

Changing times

OVERCROWDED schools are the result of soaring birth and immigration rates, meaning classrooms are set to become even more cramped.

Recent figures indicate larger families and a spike in the number of migrants settling in Edinburgh will lead to a population explosion, with the city swelling to 600,000 people by 2033.

Among the main growth drivers is a rise in the number of births – they are expected to outpace deaths by an average of 900 per year between 2010 and 2025.

However, migration to the city is contributing to pressure on schools. Just over 31,000 individuals moved to Edinburgh between 2009 and 2010, that is up from 28,383 two years earlier.

Falling emigration from the city meant net migration more than doubled over the same period.

Schools at capacity

• James Gillespie’s - Capacity: 420 Roll: 407

• Sciennes - Capacity: 630 Roll: 634

• South Morningside - Capacity: 630 Roll: 579

Schools under pressure

• Bruntsfield - Capacity: 504 Roll: 489

• Preston Street - Capacity: 245 Roll: 270 (due to team teaching in some classes)