Edinburgh schools plan: Why did council leaders fail to stand up to Scottish Government? – John McLellan

Marcus Rashford helped win a campaign over holiday hunger in Edinburgh (Picture: Rui Vieira/AP)Marcus Rashford helped win a campaign over holiday hunger in Edinburgh (Picture: Rui Vieira/AP)
Marcus Rashford helped win a campaign over holiday hunger in Edinburgh (Picture: Rui Vieira/AP)
The reason why Edinburgh’s school re-opening plan was so poor was a lack of funds, so why didn’t council leaders take a leaf out of Marcus Rashford’s book and go public, wonders John McLellan

Without any fanfare, instructions about tackling holiday hunger were sent to Edinburgh Council from the Scottish Government last week, making it clear it the authority had to feed under-privileged children over the summer.

However, the order was not backed by additional funding and the cost would have to be met from existing resources. With Edinburgh already facing a £56.5m shortfall, how this was to be done was anyone’s guess.

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Fears about holiday hunger have been growing and last week concerned activists in the Craigentinny/Duddingston ward met their councillors, myself included, to discuss a plan and a petition-based campaign was agreed.

But after Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford spoke up, by Tuesday lunchtime both the UK and Scottish governments had agreed to foot the bill and the local campaign was won before it had begun.

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By then Edinburgh education officials had a lot more on their plates as their entire return-to-school programme was being torn to shreds after its disastrous publication on Friday. Politicians’ in-boxes filled over the weekend with angry parents lambasting the proposal to bring children back into school for only a third of the time, sometimes with only one day a week in class.

When both First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Education Secretary John Swinney said the Edinburgh scheme was not good enough, it was a thoroughly public slapping down, a humiliation deepened by the oft-repeated claims by the SNP-led administration that it has a direct line into St Andrews House.

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So what went wrong? Officers accepted that as it was unlikely the two-metre distancing rule would be reduced they knew capacity was a huge problem, but even so they identified enough places near most schools – in church halls, community centres, libraries and sports centres – to deliver a much better service than 33 per cent.

They also understood that schools like Castlebrae and Wester Hailes, operating at about half capacity pre-lockdown, could offer their pupils more than even 50 per cent.

And they knew there were enough recently retired or moved-on teachers and teaching assistants to staff the extra classrooms.

Enough space, enough teachers and families almost screaming for help, but it would cost money the council didn’t have. The mistake was making the crucial assumption that the Scottish Government would not make the cash available. With orders coming in to provide holiday food without additional funds, perhaps it’s not surprising, but for whatever reason they simply didn’t ask.

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So while the First Minister and Education Secretary were embarrassing an authority their party controls, the root cause was their lack of funding and a cowed and cautious approach from the local administration.

Apart from the money, there is no reason Edinburgh children cannot get to school for at least 50 per cent of the time, if not more. And if the Scottish Government also reduces the two-metre rule to the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of one metre, as has happened in France and Denmark, then children could receive an education in August that is not far from normality.

But instead of arguing for the funds, or at least presenting an obviously poor plan with the explanation that more could be done if the Government opened the purse-strings, the authority did neither.

What was to be lost, other than council leader Adam McVey making himself unpopular with his SNP masters? And why on earth did the Labour education convener Ian Perry and his group leader Cammy Day go along with it?

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Marcus Rashford showed that publicity can work wonders, but the council couldn’t even put someone up to explain the situation on national television as the uproar boiled over.

Meanwhile, families across the city were left to come to terms with the double threat to their children’s prospects and their livelihoods as the council stuck to a flawed “blended-learning” programme which put the onus on them.

It’s not the first time the SNP Government has publicly criticised the council and it’s not the first time the council’s SNP-Labour administration has made a mess of education policy, but now it’s time the local SNP leadership showed some spine and took on its own government. That would be a first.

Cash for Marketing Edinburgh?

Good companies have had to answer some tough questions about their viability to secure emergency government funding, and this week we even heard of a firm being asked to repay its £25k grant to Edinburgh Council which had apparently been paid in error.

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So imagine what would happen to an application from a company which had repeatedly failed to file its accounts?

In the bucket or at best bottom of the pile, I’d wager.

But last week it emerged that while the bedraggled remnants of Marketing Edinburgh and its board of three councillors is six months late with its accounts, it has applied for government money, apparently to cover database maintenance.

What this involved or how much it might cost was not revealed, but maybe the server needs driving round the block to keep its battery charged or something like that?

Marketing Edinburgh’s role is to manage the visitor economy, but the visitor economy has made it plain it wants nothing to do with it, yet the city council insists on keeping it going for reasons which remain unclear.

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So the council can go after government money to bail out a firm which is flouting the law, but doesn’t seek funds to get children back to school?

It’s local government, Jim, but not as we know it.

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