School closures: 2300 Edinburgh students in limbo

Royal High School is one of the schools affected by the closures. Picture: Jon Savage
Royal High School is one of the schools affected by the closures. Picture: Jon Savage
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MORE than 2000 pupils have been left in limbo following the shock closure of 17 schools across the city.

Council chiefs said contingency plans had been drawn up to ensure all primary and special school pupils will be back in classrooms by Tuesday of next week.

Meanwhile, S4, S5 and S6 pupils from Firrhill, Drummond and Royal High will be able to return to their own schools tomorrow.

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Officials said an update for S4, S5 and S6 pupils at Gracemount and Craigmount High would be released today once arrangements are finalised.

But around 2300 of the Capital’s S1 to S3 pupils are still without any information – with city leaders promising more updates in the coming days.

It is understood they will now be out of education for at least a week.

SCHOOL CLOSURE CRISIS

• Architect Malcolm Faser says school closures show folly of PFI scheme

• Edinburgh Schools Partnership facing million-pound penalty

• Safety fears to shut 17 Edinburgh schools

• Full list of schools affected

The news comes amid growing calls for a full inquiry into the scandal, which erupted late on Friday evening when the council announced it was closing five high schools, ten primaries and two special schools amid concerns over their construction.

Serious structural defects have so far been discovered in four schools – Oxgangs, St Peter’s, Gracemount and Craigmount – with surveys in the others still ongoing.

All 17 of the affected schools, as well as Howdenhall Children’s Unit and Goodtrees Neighbourhood Centre, were built or refurbished following the public private partnership (PPP1) agreement in 2001.

The £360 million deal created a PFI consortium called the Edinburgh Schools Partnership (ESP), which includes Miller Construction and the Bank of Scotland.

Last night it emerged a fund registered in a tax haven owns a 20 per cent stake in the schools, alongside investments in schools in Glasgow and South Lanarkshire.

The John Laing Infrastructure Fund, which has its registered office in Guernsey, also owns the Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert, Falkirk. A spokesman insisted the company pays tax in the UK.

Friday’s closures were sparked after a contractor carrying out repairs at Oxgangs and St Peter’s primaries warned of missing header ties – structural fixings that attach the top of a wall to the wider building.

ESP told the council it could not confirm whether the faults existed at other sites.

Structural problems at Oxgangs had already been uncovered earlier in the year when part of a wall blew down during Storm Gertrude.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said there was now a case for a “longer-term inquiry” after the problems had been resolved, and attacked previous Labour governments for signing up to the controversial PFI deals.

She said: “These were schools built ten or more years ago under a system of PFI that at the time people, including the SNP, had real concerns about – concerns being that these contacts prioritised private profit over quality and the interests of pupils.

“If it turns out that this is a legacy of those PFI projects, then there will be big questions for those who were in charge at the time to answer.”

The Unite union also joined calls for a review of PFI projects, describing the closure of the Edinburgh schools as a “national scandal”.

Mary Alexander, Unite deputy Scottish secretary, said the closures could be “the tip of the iceberg”.

She said: “For years trade unions have highlighted the financial burden caused by PPP/PFI, and the potential for cost-cutting measures by contractors as they try to skim-off as much cream as possible from the taxpayer.”

Scotland’s largest teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, has already called for a review of the contracts, while the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland said maintenance deals put in place for the buildings had become a “dripping roast” for contractors. Meanwhile, Edinburgh University, the Scottish Parliament, NHS Lothian, community groups and local churches have all offered their facilities to the thousands of pupils affected by the upheaval.

Last night, council chiefs vowed transport would be provided for children uprooted to other schools or facilities further away from home.

But parents demanding answers said they were “furious” at the lack of information and have branded the closures a “shambles”.

Calls have also been made for families to be compensated by ESP for the cost of childcare arrangements. The consortium has so far failed to confirm whether this will happen.

Ian Murray, Labour MP for Edinburgh South, is pressing for a compensation fund that can either be given to individual schools or opened to 
parents.

And Councillor Jason Rust, who represents Oxgangs, said: “I envisage a clear case for the provision of childcare arrangements to be met by ESP’s insurers. At the very least I assume ESP will on a goodwill basis acknowledge that this fiasco has resulted in additional financial expenditure for 
families.

“Parents are also rightly frustrated by the lack of definitive information as to how long schools are likely to be under contingency measures. They need to be able to plan childcare in advance.”

Jim Eadie, SNP candidate for Edinburgh Southern, is also urging the council to scrap its contract with ESP and withdraw payments while investigations are ongoing.

Yesterday, we revealed the council could attempt to claw back monthly service payments previously made to ESP. The move would mean the consortium could face a financial penalty running to millions of pounds.

City leaders said ESP had let down the “children, parents and staff” of Edinburgh, while the consortium itself blamed Miller Construction for the “completely unacceptable” standard of its building work.

Galliford Try, which bought Miller in 2014, previously said it “supports the council’s precautionary closures of [the] buildings”. Last night it failed to respond to requests for more detail. Edinburgh’s PPP schools were built under previous Labour-Lib Dem governments. Local authorities across Scotland are now carrying out checks on schools built under similar schemes.

City chief executive Andrew Kerr thanked parents for their patience and vowed further updates would be provided throughout the week.

He said: “We have plans in place to ensure all primary and special school pupils will be back in schools by Monday of next week subject to the council getting access to the closed schools.

“Our focus is very much on getting our schoolchildren back into education as soon as possible. That remains our priority, particularly for those pupils preparing to sit their exams in May.

“Edinburgh Schools Partnership are continuing with their programme of inspections which began on Friday, and have committed to providing new information as and when it becomes available. I fully recognise the significant inconvenience to parents caused by these closures and I want to thank them for their patience as we continue to work through this issue. I can assure them that as soon as we have new information, we will pass it on.

“Daily updates will also be available via the council website.”