A SENIOR government minister today said Portobello High School was “collapsing” around its pupils after part of the assembly hall roof was blown off in strong gales which forced the campus to close.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who represents Edinburgh Eastern, said the damage caused by 70mph gusts which battered the Lothians was the “starkest demonstration possible of the need for a new school to be urgently built”.
The Nationalist MSP said pupils were being put “at risk” as more than a thousand were sent home yesterday morning to allow council staff to assess the damage and clear debris from the playground.
The school was due to re-open this morning but this latest incident has fuelled fears about children’s safety at the crumbling school.
In a strongly worded statement, Mr McAskill said: “It is simply unacceptable for 1400 kids to be taught in a building that is quite literally collapsing around them. The condition of the building is putting the education of pupils at the school at risk when disruptions like this can take place.
“The need for a new school is getting more and more urgent by the day, and pupils at the school desperately need a way forward to be found as quickly as possible.”
Yesterday’s roof damage is a further blow for the school which was denied the right to build a new campus on Portobello Park following a judgement at the Court of Session.
Several parents said the storm damage to the ageing campus on Duddingston Road came as no surprise given the poor condition of the buildings. The assembly hall is likely to be out of action for the next few days to allow it to dry out and ensure the electrics are safe.
A small part of the roof covering the school kitchen was also damaged and last night’s adult education classes were cancelled as a result.
Parents received a text message from the school at around 9.30am yesterday informing them that pupils were being sent home.
One parent, who didn’t want to be identified, said her daughter – who was in class when the storm hit – could feel the whole building shaking in the strong winds.
“How much longer do our children have to suffer in a building that is dangerous, or will they wait until somebody is seriously hurt before something is done about the rebuild?”, she said.
“What I can’t understand is why the courts have allowed the concerns of a small amount of people to overrule thousands who are thinking of the future of our children’s education.
“We need a new school now and not in five to six years.”
Lothians MSP Kezia Dugdale said the roof damage brought into “sharp focus” the need for a new school and the “precarious” state that the current building is in.
“It’s simply unacceptable that a gust of wind can shut the school and deny 1400 kids a day’s education,” said the Labour politician.
“This adds further weight to the case for an urgent assessment of the works needed to keep the school going, supported by the necessary finance to make it happen as soon as possible.”
Green party education spokesperson, Melanie Main, said “nothing could better demonstrate the urgency of a new school for Portobello” than yesterday’s incident.
Sean Watters, chair of Portobello For A New School (PFANS), whose daughter Etta, 11, is set to start at Portobello High next year, said large amounts of money had already been spent maintaining Portobello High School which could have been better invested in other schools.
“It’s an ageing building that needs replacing, and failures like this can only be expected,” he said.
“It’s not fair on the pupils or the staff to have to put up with accommodation that is sub-standard.”
Speaking last week, Mr Watters told the Evening News that he feared a new campus could be up to five years away.
Following the Court of Session judgement earlier this month, the city council is looking at alternative options – including an appeal to the Supreme Court and finding an alternate site for the development – as it tries to move forward from the legal setback.
Parents are also known to be considering setting up a trust to out-manoeuvre legal obstacles preventing Portobello Park from being built upon.
Members of the Portobello for a New School (PFANS) said a trust would allow councillors to get round a Court of Session ruling that city bosses did not have the power to appropriate the common good land at Portobello Park.
In the meantime, pupils will continue to be taught in the current campus.
Lorna Arthur, 53, whose 12-year-old grandson Michael Barfoot is a first year pupil at the school, said: “It was a decrepit run-down building when my children were there.
“It’s not feasible for these kids to be there in the condition that it’s in – I’m worried about their safety and it is affecting their education.
“We don’t know how many days education they’re going to lose. It is absolutely ridiculous.”
Chair of Portobello High School parent council, Paul Smart, whose son is in fourth school at the school, added: “If there was ever a clear message about the need for a new school, it’s a circumstance like this which is an extreme example of the deterioration of the school building.”
POWER CUTS, SCHOOL CLOSURES AND FLOODED BUSINESSES
THUNDER and lightning hit the Lothians today after a day of storms left homes without power and forced some schools and businesses to close.
Two schools in East Lothian and one in Midlothian turned pupils away when winds of up to 75mph cut off their electricity supply overnight on Monday and yesterday.
Pupils were sent home from Yester Primary in Gifford and the Lochend Campus of Dunbar Primary School with St Andrew’s Primary in Gowkshill, Gorebridge, also closing.
The Met Office had issued an amber weather warning for Edinburgh and the Lothians, but winds are expected to subside today. East Lothian was among the worst-hit areas with heavy rainfall causing the River Tyne in Haddington to burst its banks and flood several businesses.
Managers at the town’s Peter Potter Gallery said it was the second time their building had been flooded since July.
Assistant director Katie Kilpatrick said: “The building is supposed to be watertight. After last time, we are just hanging on. It’s about time the council dealt with the drains at the river – the water comes out of the drains, and that’s why the gallery floods”
Bosses at the Waterside Bistro in Haddington said their business was also hit by floodwaters.
Owner Karen Ferguson said: “The water was coming in right over the top of a wall that’s between us and the river.
“Thankfully most of our equipment was upstairs but this will cause us two days’ worth of lost trade – about two to three thousands pounds.”
There were also road closures yesterday, with the A766 closed in both directions between the A702 and the Silverburn junction because of subsidence.
Thousands wasted in windsurfer search
A MAJOR search and rescue operation was launched after a windsurfer was spotted in difficulty off the coast of Cramond – only to be stood down hours later after they vanished.
RNLI lifeboats, search teams, a police speedboat and a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter were scrambled after two sightings of a windsurfer in trouble at around lunchtime yesterday.
Despite a two-hour search, rescuers found no trace of the surfer and believe he returned to his vehicle unaware of the huge operation that descended on the Firth of Forth.
It is thought that the rescue operation may have wasted tens of thousands of pounds, with the launch of a navy helicopter understood to cost around £24,000 – and thousands spent launching the two RNLI craft and the S010 police boat.
Forth Coastguard said the windsurfer was foolish to have entered the sea in pouring rain and 50mph winds, and had placed rescuers at risk.
Watch manager Chris Bolam said: “We received two separate reports in the Silverknowes area, first from a lady at Bistro Cafe near the shore. She had been out jogging and had seen a windsurfer fall down a few times – the last time disappearing from view.
“There was a further sighting from a gentleman who photographed in the same area, so we know he was definitely out there.”
He added: “There’s not really any way of tracing him now but you get the windsurfers going out in this terrible weather as they see it as a challenge. With the weather conditions such as they were, it was dangerous for the boats. They were putting their lives on the line for this ‘sportsman’.”
Gary Fairbairn, coxswain of the all-weather lifeboat at Dunbar RNLI, said: “It’s not often conditions are as bad as today in these waters.
“The boat was being thrown all over the place by waves as high as a house. In conditions like today, every minute counts and we would much rather be there than too late.”