New south Edinburgh school may be axed due to funding crisis

PLANS to build the Capital's first new primary school in more than 30 years have been jeopardised by the 'worst local government financial settlement since devolution', senior education figures have warned.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 18th January 2016, 9:27 am
Updated Monday, 18th January 2016, 9:36 am
The council is struggling to pay for a new primary school. Picture: PA
The council is struggling to pay for a new primary school. Picture: PA

It is hoped the school in the south of Edinburgh will help ease accommodation pressure bearing down on James Gillespie’s, South Morningside and Bruntsfield primaries, where classrooms are full to bursting as rolls soar.

Around £6 million has already been allocated to build the new school thanks to the sale of the old Boroughmuir High building.

However, the existence of a £12.3m funding gap has raised serious doubts about whether the project will proceed after Finance Minister John Swinney announced that local government grants would be cut by at least 3.5 per cent.

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The reduction means cash-strapped city leaders have been forced to increase their savings target and will now seek to slash at least £147m from budgets over the next four years.

It has emerged a plan to revamp the ageing Meadowbank Sports Centre is also under pressure, with project leaders facing a near-£6m gap.

Although council chiefs have indicated they are more confident about securing cash to complete redevelopment of Meadowbank, shortfalls in funding for the new primary school have sparked acute worry.

One council source said: “At the moment, the money for it simply isn’t there.”

Conditions are so cramped at South Morningside that almost £700,000 has already been spent fitting out Deanbank Resource Centre in Canaan Lane.

Following the completion of a statutory consultation, city bosses have recommended establishing the new campus on the combined site of South Morningside’s Deanbank annexe and Oaklands Care Home.

They said catchment boundaries for South Morningside, Bruntsfield, James Gillespie’s and Tollcross primaries would be redrawn in line with the recommended proposal. Existing nursery classes hosted by South Morningside, and based at Fairmilehead Church Hall, are also set to be axed.

City bosses said delivering a long-term solution to crowding pressures at schools in south Edinburgh was crucial.

But while stressing there was still an “absolute commitment” to building a new primary, they admitted the budget environment had made delivery much more challenging.

Councillor Paul Godzik, education leader, said: “There are ways and means to bring capital projects forward, but our finances are under huge strain and the settlement from the Scottish Government has not helped one iota.”

Arguing that new revenue-raising powers for the council had become essential, he added: “If, for instance, the council tax freeze was removed then we could factor that money into new projects, but we need that assurance from the government. We now have to look very carefully at the funding requirements to progress this project. £6m has already been allocated from the sale of Boroughmuir to secure the necessary land.

“However, we have just received the worst local government financial settlement since devolution, with significant reduction in expected funding. Added to this we have no ability to raise additional funding given the Scottish Government’s commitment to the council tax freeze.”

He said there was clear support among school communities in south Edinburgh for the recommendation outlined by the council.

“There was a healthy response to the consultation and a clear preference from the local community to deliver a new school rather than continue with annexe arrangements,” he added.

“As such I’m very pleased that we have a solid recommendation to deliver a new school and nursery in the south Edinburgh area.

“All the schools affected have been suffering from significant accommodation pressures over a number of years, so this is a major step forward.”

Parent leaders have welcomed confirmation of the council’s plans. But they said they would be deeply disappointed at any suggestion that the opportunity to deliver a new school could be lost.

Craig Hilton, chair of South Morningside Primary parent council, said: “There are strong educational and social benefits from having a whole school on one site rather than the current split site configuration.

“Mrs Greirson, headmistress of South Morningside Primary, outlined the key issues with a split site at the public 
meeting held at South Morningside school.

“In addition, the Education Scotland website has details of consultations that also offer options of moving from split to single sites primary schools, including Broomhill Primary School in Glasgow and Madras College in Fife.

“In these documents the same common themes arise that positively support a move to a single site.”

However, not all families in the area are happy.

One South Morningside parent, who asked not to be named, said: “This is a nice piece of news for one half of the constituency, but pretty rotten news for the other half, who are being stiffed with a proposal which keeps their kids in an unfit building for seven years and cuts their nursery.

“Of the many ways this council could save money, it is socially backward to do it by cutting nursery education.”

Scottish Government officials have rejected claims that their policies are making it more difficult to invest in new education facilities.

Insisting that hundreds of schools had been rebuilt or refurbished across Edinburgh and Scotland, they said there was a commitment to delivering further improvements.

A spokeswoman said: “Despite ongoing cuts to our budget as a result of the UK government’s continuing austerity programme, the Scottish Government has always treated local government very fairly, with settlements maintained on a like for like basis over 2012-16. So local government in Scotland starts from a healthy base compared to the position in England where councils faced significant cash cuts to their funding.

“The 2016-17 local government funding proposal delivers a strong but challenging financial settlement for local government which will be 
strengthened by improving education attainment.

“Furthermore, the Scottish Government intends to invest £250m in integrating health and social care services which will have a positive benefit on local authority budgets.

“Since 2007, this government has rebuilt or refurbished more than 500 schools and we continue to help local authorities improve their school estate through our £1.8 billion Schools for the Future programme.”

She added: “We have made £70m available to continue the council tax freeze for a ninth consecutive year which will save the average band D household around £1550 in total on their bill. We are still in discussions with local government over the terms and implementation of the local government finance settlement.”