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Split over the way ahead for design

Divisions over the shape of Scotland's schools emerged when delegates challenged Peter Peacock, reports Neil Munro

Contrasting pictures of the Scottish Executive's pound;2 billion school rebuilding programme emerged at the third national conference on the schools estate, held at Heriot-Watt University last Friday.

Leading members of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association accused the Executive of presiding over overheated and smaller classrooms in the new schools, which are funded through public private partnerships.

"The Executive's ambitions are not being realised," Douglas Amos, an SSTA field officer, told the Education Minister, Peter Peacock. Mr Peacock had said in his address that he wanted to see "creative and inspiring buildings which we need if we're going to produce creative and inspiring young people."

Bob McGarill, another leading SSTA figure who is depute head at St Thomas Aquinas Secondary in Glasgow, said the official rhetoric about the importance of consulting staff and others during PPP projects had been ignored in Glasgow. "During 18 meetings over two-and-a-half years, I didn't feel my views carried any weight whatsoever," he said.

Penny Martin, of Grounds for Learning, said her organisation receives similar complaints from across Scotland at the lack of genuine consultation with parents and the community.

Mr McGarill said all Glasgow's 29 secondary schools had been rebuilt to a single design with barely any changes from the initial plans, and there were ventilation and heating problems in every school.

Glasgow City Council is rechecking the results of a study in an attempt to find out if these claims have any foundation.

Mr Peacock acknowledged there were differing experiences in different parts of the country. He said he had seen examples of very flexible classrooms "where the walls can move - quite literally".

The Minister said he had come across claims about overheated classrooms "but equally I've been in schools where the air-conditioning and heating systems have worked perfectly adequately".

A contrasting picture was presented by David Meek, head of the new Queen Anne High in Dunfermline, who said pupils' learning and behaviour had improved in "an increasingly effective learning environment".

This was echoed in a video presentation about the school by Ronnie Ross, its depute head, who said the new facilities had "upped the pupils' game".

Mr Meek said the staff reaction had been intriguing. "Some decided to retire rather than move to the new school. Others have found the move difficult and feel the pressure of working in a large community after 30 years of teaching in huts. Some expected a utopia and were a little disappointed in mere excellence."

But Mr Meek acknowledged there were problems but lessons had been learned.

"PPP schools should not have keys but an electronic card system; we are using more energy than planned, largely because areas are not able to be isolated; there needs to be a significant increase in disabled facilities; and how technology is integrated into the project needs very, very careful consideration."

Underlining Mr Peacock's call for flexible designs, Mr Meek said Queen Anne High had already been overtaken by events. "It was built when it was not possible to include the needs of a new community school," he said, "and it was built around a guidance system that has now become defunct."

Janice Kirkpatrick, a design specialist, said there must be a willingness to learn lessons and to acknowledge that "early decisions will not necessarily have been the best decisions". New schools should not be so modern and functional that they become sanitised without any humanising touches, Ms Kirkpatrick said. "Every aspect of a school building should be reassuring and challenging," she added. "It should be like a good novel, revealing itself slowly and discovered gradually."

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