A modern school does not a good education make - but it helps

11th May 2007 at 01:00
It's been frustrating for those waiting for the builders to arrive, but it hasn't dulled their academic achievements

CEILING TILES are missing, sections of carpet are being held together by gaffer tape, chunks of stonework have been devoured by damp and netting has been placed around loose brickwork to stop it falling on to the playground below. Welcome to James Gillespie's High, one of Scotland's top academic state schools.

With poor ventilation and uneven paving stones, broken doors, smelly toilets and missing roofing, James Gillespie's would look more at home in eastern Europe than it does in Edinburgh's affluent south side. Parents have jokingly described its down-at-heel appearance as "shabby chic", but the joke is beginning to wear as thin as the ageing flooring which has become a potential hazard. None of the teachers is laughing; they are fed up and morale is low.

An emergency meeting was held by the school board in March, following a damning report into the condition of the buildings. It concluded that they were "increasingly proving no longer fit for purpose". Most of the roofs, windows, external doors, sanitary and shower facilities, electrical systems, heating plant and ceilings are reaching the end of their serviceable life. And that's official.

Less than a mile away, across the Meadows, the grass is definitely greener for pupils and staff at St Thomas of Aquin's High. Opened in 2002, the pound;14m school - voted Britain's best new civic building that year - is from another world: the 21st century.

Inside its smart sandstone walls lies an impressive building set on four floors with a lift for disabled students, classrooms that are 65square metres, a dedicated support for learning area, interactive whiteboards in each classroom, social areas and one large, impressive entrance. This modern edifice rose from the ashes of old Victorian school buildings which were condemned 10 years ago and pulled down after the then janitor put his foot through a staircase.

Even after five years, St Thomas's looks fresh, clean and welcoming. Staff and pupils at the Catholic school, the last in Edinburgh to be built before the public-private partnership, were heavily involved in its design. The teachers, who all have laptops, love it and so do the pupils who got everything their predecessors put on their wish-list, except a swimming pool, a Burger King in the canteen and a pool table in the sixth-form common room.

Stephen Phee, the headteacher, is justifiably proud of this award-winning construction, but it is the vision and values of a school that make it successful, he says, not nice buildings: "Ethos is stronger than bricks and mortar. The fact that the school is beautiful is the icing on the cake for us."

This tale of two schools is a tale of the haves and have-nots of an education system which is trying very hard to improve the school estate across Scotland. The Scottish Executive has funded Scotland's biggest ever school building programme, aiming to have 300 schools revamped or rebuilt by 2009.

Across the country, sod is being cut and new buildings are going up. South Lanarkshire Council boasts one of the biggest UK education PPP programmes, which involves private companies building and maintaining new schools and leasing them to the local authority for a period of around 30 years. With a capital value of pound;319 million invested in its 19 secondary schools, and its 124 primaries being updated in an pound;850 million modernisation programme financed through a different method, they are being transformed to meet the needs of a 21st-century learning environment. By 2010, one third of Edinburgh's pupils will be taught in brand new or significantly refurbished school buildings. Twenty new schools have opened since 2002.

However, at Braes High in Falkirk, a post-occupancy evaluation raised a range of issues including lack of storage, too few staff toilets, ventilation and the size of the staff car park. The 1,200-pupil secondary school, which opened in 2000, was part of the council's first PPP project.

No school will be perfect for everyone but the new come a lot closer than the old.

Edinburgh City has acknowledged that further investment is required in its schools and is developing proposals to replace five, including James Gillespie's. The others are St Crispin's, Portobello High, St John's Primary and Boroughmuir High, another of Scotland's leading state schools.

The council has already written to the Scottish Executive asking for the proposals to be considered for any future funding packages. But that's not fast enough for pupils and teachers in schools like Gillespie's who are left to wait their turn in the queue.

The survey, which was commissioned by Edinburgh City Council and led to the school board's emergency meeting on March 26, said the condition of the buildings was having an "adverse impact on the operation of the school" and that it needed ideally to be rebuilt. In the meantime, pound;1m is being spent on urgent repair work, money that the school was due to get for improvements in 2009-10.

After the elections last week, decisions about the future funding of schools are on hold until the new administration has found its feet. If money is forthcoming, it is likely to be around five years before the new-builds will be open for business.

There has been unprecedented investment in school buildings across the country but councils are trying to make up for a backlog of under-investment. That offers little comfort to parents and pupils of James Gillespie's, where buckets and mops are essential equipment and a new pound;500,000 heating system put in last August only began to work in February. "Children should not have to acclimatise to this," says Alex Wallace, the head. "Virtually everything is past its sell-by date. I'm embarrassed at what parents think."

He is disappointed that his bright students are not learning in a better environment. "It's not that we can't provide an appropriate curriculum or a range of experiences. Students are missing out."

What is remarkable is that despite all this, James Gillespie's is still a very good school. The league tables show that the state of the buildings has done nothing to affect high attainment levels. Pupils are active in many extra-curricular activities as well as their academic work, and their sense of community has resulted in them raising pound;10,000 to help pupils in other parts of the world. They have also collected pound;4,000 for their own school.

A trip around James Gillespie's reinforces the view that a school is more than the sum of its buildings. The pupils are happy. The atmosphere is warm and friendly and there is respect for Mr Wallace, who chats with pupils as they make their way to classes. He obviously enjoys this aspect of his job.

Unfortunately, much of his time is taken up with building issues.

He's tired of talking about the poor state of his school rather than teaching and learning, and he's anxious that parents don't worry. "I am concerned that the parents might read the press reports and feel they are not going to get as good an education in Gillespie's," says Mr Wallace.

"You do not get a better education in a new building. A good school is not a good building, but a good school like Gillespie's deserves a good building."



Since 1996, Stirling Council has invested more than pound;34m in major schemes within its school estate. Next year will see the opening of four new-build secondary schools, one fully refurbished secondary and an innovative community campus incorporating two primary schools, a special school, a nursery, community sport and leisure facilities and further education provision. By the end of 2008-09, Stirling's secondary school estate will be completely renewed with the completion of major extension and remodelling work at Bannockburn High.


The council is spending pound;90m on a public-private partnership (PPP) project to provide six new primaries and two new secondaries. Plans have been passed for a new replacement special school (not through PPP). One refurbished secondary (St John's High) and one refurbished primary (Forthill) recently re-opened. Both were non-PPP projects.


Twenty new schools have been opened since 2002, and by 2010 one third of Edinburgh's pupils will be taught in new or significantly refurbished schools. In addition, it has a three-year capital programme which will see pound;75 million invested in school properties and a maintenance programme for day-to-day works.


Glasgow City Council has overhauled its secondary school estate under one of the first PPP initiatives. It has spent pound;220m rebuilding and refurbishing 29 schools - 11 rebuilt and 18 upgraded and refurbished. Since 2003, Pounds 261m has been earmarked for primary refurbishments and rebuilds, including 37 new schools, 11 of which have been completed.

Scottish Borders Council The council is providing three new high schools in Berwickshire, in Duns, Earlston and Eyemouth, through a pound;70m PPP.

South Ayrshire

The council is undertaking a fundamental review of its school estate, which is likely to include new schools and school upgrades.


Aberdeen City Council is carrying out a city-wide review of school provision, which will include an audit of all schools and a plan to identify school closures, amalgamations and improvements.

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