Kezia Dugdale: How a failing school was transformed

Five years ago, just about every education expert you could find was backing the council's bid to close Castlebrae High School.

Tuesday, 15th May 2018, 7:00 am
Pupils and staff from Castlebrae Commuity High School celebrate with Fergus Linehan, director of Edinburgh International Festival, centre, after the creation of an arts residency at the school (Picture: Ian Georgeson)

The school roll was falling, the leadership of the school was lacklustre, and exam results were skulking at the bottom of the city-wide league tables.

It was around around the same time that a longstanding promise to build a new Portobello High School really started to take shape. A state-of-the-art, no-expense-spared, cutting-edge school.

The argument went that if you shut Castlebrae, some of the kids would be sent to the new Portobello, and others sent to Holyrood High. But my question was always “would they go?”

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I was so sure that the kids would just drift off and be lost in a numbers game.

Ninety per cent of a decent education starts with showing up. If the kids didn’t walk through the school gates, there’s nothing a smartboard and free iPad can do for them.

For me, there’s no point in having a fabulous school building, with the best teachers, if the young people it’s intended for don’t feel like they belong. They were always going to be singled out as something other ... something different.

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I went to a school called Harris Academy in the leafy west end of Dundee in the mid to late ‘90s. When the council shut Rockwell High up the road and sent the kids to Harris instead, everyone knew who the ‘Rockie’ kids were. School’s hard enough without all those extra labels.

So, back in 2013, I joined the Save the Brae campaign and fought back against the school closures. Together we demanded that Craigmillar should have its own high school without question. It was a matter of pride and regeneration ... community and cohesion.

Last week, I was back in the school to see how things were going and was hugely impressed by the positivity of the place. There’s stunning leadership from the headteacher, Norma Prentice, and the kids were bounding with enthusiasm for their school and its achievements. A three-year partnership deal with the Edinburgh International Festival has given the school confidence and belief. Belief in itself. A belief that spills out into the wider community when the bell rings at 3pm.

I’ve always thought that we put a bit too much pressure on teachers and the education system in general. Yes, education is a great liberator and equaliser. Access to it can undoubtedly smash through predetermined destinies. There’s a limit though, and it kicks in when the bell rings.

Ending austerity and eradicating poverty are ultimately the best things we can do for the next generation and we should never lose sight of that.

That said, at the end of May, the council will consider a report for a new high school in Craigmillar. The plan is to move it down the road on to the main street, so it’s visibly at the heart of the community and at the heart of the area’s wider regeneration. It looks great, but the catch is always the same: where’s the money coming from?

There’s going to be competing demand across the city for any cash for new high schools, not least in Liberton. But here’s the thing: the Scottish Government’s number one national priority is closing the attainment gap between the richest and poorest kids.

On that basis alone, Craigmillar must be the priority. We should have the same aspirations for all young people, wherever they live in the east end of Edinburgh.

We saved the Brae, now it’s time to build Craigmillar the bright future it deserves.