Ministers double cash to build new schools

THE Scottish Executive sprang a major surprise this week by doubling its planned support for school building projects and committing all the funding to one spending round instead of two.

The Opposition was caught wrong-footed as Cathy Jamieson, Education Minister, and Nicol Stephen, her deputy, made a rare joint public appearance to announce what Ms Jamieson called a "step-change" in investment and Mr Stephen described as "a hugely significant statement after years of neglect".

Fifteen councils which had put in bids by last December will share in a pound;1.15 billion package to help rebuild or renew around 300 schools under public private partnerships, in addition to the pound;500 million worth of PPP schemes currently funding 79 schools.

Authorities had been expecting just pound;500 million to cover December's bids and another tranche to be submitted in September.

The announcement dwarfs the pledge given at the Scottish Labour Party conference in March by Jack McConnell, the First Minister, to refurbish 100 schools over the lifetime of the next Parliament. Council leaders were summoned to hear the news in the symbolic setting of Queen Anne High in Dunfermline where a new privately financed school is under construction.

The authorities gave an unreserved welcome, although not all received what they asked for. The shortfall is pound;700 million on the amounts that were bid.

Alan Blackie, president of the Association of Directors of Education, said:

"By any measure, this is excellent news and displays great commitment. It starts us well on the road to improving the state of our schools. Clearly, more needs to be done and the Executive has acknowledged that."

Ms Jamieson said the announcement fulfils the commitment given as part of the teachers' settlement, and included in the national priorities for education, of "ensuring that teachers work within a high-quality learning environment".

Mr Stephen said that the new projects would include first-rate sports, drama and community facilities as well as playing fields.

Aberdeenshire, East Lothian and Fife are the only councils to receive the full amounts for which they bid, in contrast to South Lanarkshire, North Lanarkshire and Argyll and Bute which were allocated around half of what was sought.

Ms Jamieson said ministers had wanted to make significant progress within the money available. They had favoured projects which prioritised needs rather than those which pitched for renewing all the local building stock.

The Executive will now hold discussions with council representatives to draw up an "estates strategy" for the whole of Scotland by the end of the year. This is intended to produce further investment targeted on schools in the worst conditions.

Councils have been invited to submit another round of bids by September, although Mr Stephen said the Executive would be flexible about that. "It is more important to get the bids right than to impose a deadline."

Who gets what, page 3

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