SNP manifesto pledge about new Edinburgh's Gaelic school already set to be broken – John McLellan

It’s less than a month since the Scottish elections and already a clear SNP manifesto commitment with a direct impact on Edinburgh schools is set to be broken.

By John McLellan
Wednesday, 2nd June 2021, 4:45 pm
Could the old Royal High School building become a Gaelic school, wonders John McLellan (Picture: Steven Scott Taylor)
Could the old Royal High School building become a Gaelic school, wonders John McLellan (Picture: Steven Scott Taylor)

The pledge to create a standalone Gaelic medium secondary school in Edinburgh caught the council on the hop, and torpedoed a meeting to discuss its plans for a new school on a shared campus at Liberton.

The manifesto couldn’t be clearer: “A central location is necessary to ensure it is accessible from major public transport hubs to allow the new standalone school to serve the wider Lothian region.”

But after only a fortnight as new education secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville has contradicted her own manifesto. “It is clear that the council have presented an excellent option at Liberton High and one that serves the community very well,” she said.

And if there was any doubt, Edinburgh’s deputy education convener, SNP Councillor Alison Dickie, welcomed the U-turn. “The endorsement from the Scottish government for a new GME high school on the Liberton site is really positive. This means there would be two new dedicated schools next to each other, and access to the educational breadth our young people need in their journey towards full immersion to which we are committed.”

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U-turns are usually because of public pressure, but the parents of GME pupils don’t want to go to Liberton or a shared campus, something the SNP manifesto also recognised. “To ensure that the GME experience is truly immersive we will have a general presumption against co-locating GME schools with English medium schools,” it said.

This affects the entire Edinburgh schools investment budget and could have a major impact on capacity in the other central Edinburgh secondary schools. James Gillespie’s, where Gaelic is currently taught, is full to bursting, so delays to the new GME school mean severe capacity issues and the probability that children in the catchment area could be sent elsewhere.

There is, of course, a substantial council-owned school in central Edinburgh doing nothing, one which the council has been trying to get rid of for years, but whose own planners blocked the agreed proposal to turn the old Royal High into a hotel.

It will cost millions to bring it into any use, money the council doesn’t have, and by now we should have known about the bids to replace the failed hotel plan. Front-runner is the proposed move of St Mary’s Music school from the West End, and while its main backer, the Dunard Fund arts charity, had over £70m at its disposal before lockdown, its other main project, the controversial St Andrew Square concert hall is already over budget without any concrete poured.

If the music school plan is derailed by the concert hall, is the old Royal High an alternative for the Scottish government and the council?

The consultation with GME parents has been extended til August, but as their desire for a central, standalone school is unlikely to dim, it sounds more like a persuasion exercise, but the Scottish government has raised expectations and should take ownership of the confusion it’s caused.

Then again, maybe the manifesto promise was just another line to get the vote over the line of a majority. And if you break lots of little promises maybe breaking big ones isn’t so difficult.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor for Craigentinny/Duddingston

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