Iain Whyte: Money for schools or for trams? Hmm, let me see . . .
Thirty years of under investment in our school estate means that the council has tough decisions to make about how to prioritise the limited funding it has. Last week councillors had to choose how to spend Â£25m million on our schools. Good news for the replacement Castlebrae and new sports facility at Trinity but not so good for Currie High, the main school building at Trinity Academy, Balerno, Wester Hailes and Liberton all of which have been identified as needing replacement. Compared with the needs the sums of money available are trivial.
To aid councillors in their decision-making an extensive report was published outlining how to prioritise replacing schools. Category 1 was those coming to the end of their structural life – Currie High. Category 2 lack of “sufficiency of core facilities” – most urgent in this category is Trinity Academy. All this was ignored and decisions were taken to reflect previous promises made rather than sit back and take a strategic view. Why commission a report based on need then commit limited resources which won’t even deliver all that was promised? The £25m won’t even cover the cost of the new Craigmillar school, once land is factored in. Trinity’s sports facilities will likely require another £8m-£10m so how exactly can that be delivered?
I called for the council to publicly lobby the Scottish Government to contribute additional funds rather than just have a private hope that this may come one day. We need to be clear about future funding so we can properly plan to refurbish or redevelop all of Edinburgh’s unsuitable high schools.
The report had all sorts of other unresolved contradictions. In June, at the Education, Children and Families Committee it was made clear by politicians and educationalists that Currie, WHEC and indeed Craigmillar can thrive as schools of 600-800 pupils. This has been ignored in the report which states clearly that all schools should be 1200 or 1400-pupil places. The truth is the schools need to be built with sufficient capacity for the area they serve. A sensible council administration would have asked officers to revise their report to take account of decisions already made but again this didn’t happen.
The heart of the issue is that there simply isn’t enough money in the current SNP/Labour administration’s budget to meet the educational needs of our city. Back in February at budget time we Conservatives set aside far more money to address the schools issue and resolve some of these problems. That was outvoted in favour of setting aside budget to extend the trams. I think I know what parents would prefer. But I doubt the budget next year will resolve it.
I agree that all the schools concerned need significant investment. I want to see that happen as quickly as possible. But without support from the Scottish Government the budget decisions of the current SNP/Labour council will never get us there. Is it too much to ask that the SNP councillors seek certainty on funding from their own government before making decisions based on folly? Why rob Peter to pay Paul and give him half rations at that? Or is it as even one Labour backbencher declared in the Evening News recently that the SNP councillors are simply apologists for their Government?
Cllr Iain Whyte is the Conservative Group leader at Edinburgh City Council