A capital investment

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Improving its school buildings and standards has forcedparents and teachers in Edinburgh to get to grips with the harsh facts of council spending. Neil Munro reports.

Edinburgh City Council has always had capital ambitions to match its capital status, and its plans for education are no exception. Alas, in these days of financial stringency, the authority has only too much in common with other councils. A report to this month's education committee revealed a catalogue of woe: larger classes, reduced subject choice, worsening staffing levels in teaching and non-teaching posts, less specialist teaching in primaries, management running to provide cover, spending on equipment slashed, primary schools turning to sponsorship and fund-raising.

But school and parent leaders cannot claim they "didnae ken". One of the council's more successful innovations has been its parents' consultative committee which, along with chairmen of school boards and heads, is asked about a range of issues including the city's budget.

"It has been a very effective process," according to Judith Gillespie, one of the committee's members and chair of the Boroughmuir High School board. But it has not been comfortable. While parents and headteachers are better informed about local government finance and the council's budget dilemmas, Mrs Gillespie knows that education spending is being squeezed.

Parents who attended meetings about this year's budget were adamant that classroom spending must be protected. One economy meant an unpopular restriction of free transport: the distance from school that pupils had to live to qualify was raised from two miles to three. Among the five worst-hit secondaries was Mrs Gillespie's Boroughmuir where only 30 pupils qualify for free bus passes instead of 200.

One consequence of those consultations is that there are no longer any suspicions about "a pot of gold hidden away somewhere in headquarters," according to Ian Marchant, who chairs the local association of nursery, primary and special school heads. "The distribution of funding is now more transparent and equitable," he says, "and I know from talking to colleagues elsewhere that Edinburgh allows its schools much greater autonomy in running their own affairs."

Strong devolved management has its price as schools discovered this year when they had to pay part of the teachers' pay rise. "At least we knew from the discussions that this was likely and most heads had budgeted for it," Mr Marchant says.

For an authority that prides itself on being a national leader, it could have been of little comfort to Liz Reid, the director of education, to be forced to report to her committee on October 9 that a regular refrain from secondary schools was they had to alter their development plans to take account of financial restrictions. In particular, schools face "reduced time for key staff to be released from other duties to lead development work and associated extension of target completion dates".

It therefore comes as a surprise to learn that Edinburgh was able to invest almost Pounds 15 million last year in school buildings. Teachers who have put up with indifferent conditions may be surprised to discover that this included more than Pounds 3 million on planned maintenance work consisting of 143 separate projects on 77 different sites. It is jam spread thinly but Mrs Reid, who arrived as director in Lothian Region in 1993, is proud that "there have been no cuts to the school maintenance programme in my time".

The next big investment will see Pounds 6 million from the sale of the council-owned Gyle shopping complex being spent to wire up its 230 schools, community centres and education establishments to the World Wide Web. It has just been given Pounds 125,000 from the Sun Microsystems Foundation that will allow pupils at three secondaries - Broughton, Balerno and Trinity - access to the Internet from the classroom.

Elizabeth Maginnis, the council's education convener, insists this investment is "to enhance learning and teaching" rather than create computing experts.

These are big pluses in the spending equation, as is the city's lead contribution to what is turning out to be one of the most significant educational developments of recent years - the emphasis on improving literacy and numeracy begun under Lothian. It was a high-risk strategy for a Labour authority to lift the lid on under-achievement among the children of its natural constituency.

But the pay-off has been substantial. There has been a fall of 35 per cent in the number of virtual non-readers in primary two since 1994 in the deprived Pilton area. Primary two non-readers last year was at 9 per cent, while primary three reading at "well above" average levels rose from less than 5 per cent at the start of the early intervention project to 19 per cent in 1996.

Mrs Maginnis has been the force behind the initiative which, ironically, grew out of a school closures row in her council ward that developed into a debate about standards. She takes satisfaction from the extension of early intervention to other parts of the city and of Scotland with the help of Pounds 24 million from the Government.

But it is time to move on. "We have cracked the priorities for the Nineties in terms of more secure early education so children can take advantage of their schooling," Mrs Maginnis says. "We must now return to what might also be seen as part of the basics - the quality of the buildings and the quality of the education that takes place inside them."

Edinburgh does not need Glasgow's school rationalisation agenda: the capital's problem is one of pressure on space rather than under-capacity. The council is preparing Pounds 100 million in bids for building replacement and modernisation under the Government's public-private partnership programme.

But it is taking a softly-softly approach to primary school closures. The subject was taken off the formal agenda last year but councillors have been stimulating discussion in their own localities about the best way forward. This has produced community consent for amalgamations on the west side - St Joseph's Roman Catholic and Broomhouse non-denominational primaries will share facilities on a new site, but stay in separate buildings, and a new school will replace Moredun, in Gilmerton, and Fernieside primaries.

With a review of school catchment areas and the lure of private and government money, council leaders hope these moves will resolve accommodation problems. "We believe this is a more user-friendly way of tackling the issue," Mrs Maginnis says. "The pipe of peace is a better approach than drawing the wagons in a circle and firing at the Indians as they come along."

Discussion on the state of education in Edinburgh does not go far before private schools enter the equation; it has the heaviest concentration of independent schools in Scotland: a quarter of secondary school-age pupils are in fee-paying education.

The authority knows it is has competition. Council schools are encouraged to build links with the private sector. Broughton High and Fettes, Tony Blair's former school, undertake joint music productions and have formed a football team. Castlebrae in Craigmillar and George Watson's, which the Heritage Secretary Chris Smith attended, planned a drugs education programme. Mrs Maginnis hopes such contacts will knit the city together socially but doubts the "status symbol" of private schools will ever change for many parents. "But we might be able to persuade some parents with income to pay for private education that their children will do no worse in an education authority school and will receive a more rounded experience," she says.

But the greatest impact on education in Edinburgh may not come from the city council or the private schools but from the Scottish Parliament. Mrs Maginnis is confident the local authorities will continue to have responsibility for schools. But she warns in the latest edition of her department's Education News that "to secure that responsibility, it is equally certain that we must be able to demonstrate with crystal clarity that we are able to provide constantly improving quality and higher educational achievement for all our people".

* Edinburgh City Council is holding a conference today in association with the Times Educational Supplement Scotland entitled "Quality in Education: from vision to reality" at the city's International Conference Centre

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