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Corridors of organised chaos

Many schools face overcrowding problems, but those in Aberdeenshire are at bursting point. Seonag MacKinnon reports

Battling your way through the main entrance at Ellon Academy in Aberdeenshire, through the canteen area to the main offices, you might think you had bumped into a visiting party of pupils from another school. But staff inform you that the children all belong here.

Corridors are not just for people travelling from A to B. Teachers directing project work put tables out here because of a shortage of elbow space in the classroom. Luggage racks line the walls, and hundreds of students have to congregate here when it is wet. They have little space in the playground which has to accommodate a temporary extension.

One girl tosses her purse in the air as she chats to a friend. Others pass by, and the headteacher elbows in, trying to sign a pupil's form. A teacher attempts to squeeze through with a box of materials. The head turns round and bumps into her. The train of milling people is halted. Collisions in the corridor are surprisingly few as staff and pupils seem well-practised in the art of dancing round each other. They appear resigned to the awful congestion.

Headteacher Brian Wilkins says: "When 1,659 pupils have to stay in here over lunchtime, they could cause all sorts of problems if they chose. Basically they don't. We are lucky most of our kids are easy."

A one-way system in parts of the building helps to keep people moving round at a reasonable rate, but it still takes time to reach classes, especially in a second building across a busy road. Dr Wilkins estimates that eight-and-a-half hours teaching time is lost each day as staff try to get from one class to another. Pity the teacher who fails to make it through the crowds at morning break in time to find a chair in the staffroom.

Temporary extensions annexed to the main building have helped give the school some breathing space but a major building scheme of new houses in the town suggests that by the beginning of the new millennium Ellon could have a further 300 children on the roll, making it one of the largest schools in the country. Dr Wilkins seems tortured by the desire to highlight conditions in the school and yet retain the confidence of parents. "We are faced with these problems but the work that is going on in classrooms is, I believe, of a very high standard - and I'm speaking not just as the headteacher, but as a parent who has had two children here."

He seems tortured too by a desire not to upset council chieftains who managed to procure the much-needed temporary extension, yet points out that by its very nature it is a noisy, expensive building to heat, with a short life span and very little social space for pupils. He is not optimistic about the future. Even with publicprivate partnership money to build a new secondary and a primary extension, he says: "It will be four to six years before the new secondary becomes fully operational and it could be that our numbers increase so much in that time that it doesn't have the impact hoped. Ellon is going to have quite a rough ride in the next few years with 400 new houses being built within a mile and the development of a much larger special education unit.

"Even if the new school does take away some of the pressure on numbers, we will still remain a split site with a main road between. We would like to move onto a single site, but just to relocate split departments, we're talking about Pounds 1 million. We already have some local authority money set aside, but that needs to be added to. We are submitting a plan to the depute director by mid-October.

"Ellon is certainly not alone. Almost without exception the secondary schools in Aberdeenshire need work. If Pounds 11 million goes into one site, it could be even more difficult to update existing accommodation. Aberdeenshire could spend two to three times that, and still be left with inadequate accommodation. "

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