The bodges behind Glasgow's new facade

27th April 2001 at 01:00
After months of dust and rubble, the price of the city's public private partnership is fewer amenities and less subject choice, says Willie Hart

he Glasgow project under the public private partnership (PPP) is the largest so far in education. The Educational Institute of Scotland has been critical of all PPP developments, as we believe public services should be financed by public resources through taxation.

Teachers' apprehensions have been confirmed by the story of PPP in action so far. In November 1999, plans for the revamped secondary schools began to emerge. Whatever one's political reservations about PPP and its flaky finances most people expected that schools would at least have improved facilities. Instead we faced a loss of facilities and a deterioration of learning provision.

Every single secondary in Glasgow faced some loss of classrooms. Six had their swimming pool removed and most were cut from two games halls to one. Up to a quarter of teachers will be without a designated classroom.

A more recent discovery has been the problematic design of science labs with workbenches along three walls rather than in horizontal rows facing teachers. This means that the teacher will often be assisting one group of pupils while turning their back on two-thirds of the class. The priority is maximum use of space, with all rooms fully operational at all times. Commercial "logic" takes precedence over educational practice. Fewer classrooms mean lower maintenance costs, but more hassle and pressure. Staffrooms have been replaced by departmental or faculty "base rooms", resulting in fragmentation of staff. The ability to bond is reduced and professional interchange made more difficult.

The performance of our local PPP contractors since they took possession of the secondary schools does not inspire confidence. Staffs who valiantly met deadlines to pack materials and rearrange timetables found nothing happening for several weeks.

"Last-minute hitches" in the PPP contract, such as who was responsible - the city council or the 3Ed consortium - for moving the tea chests, chairs and desks, were to blame. No doubt this was to the benefit of the lawyers, consultants and other fat cats billing by the hour for their "services".

The proponents of PPP make much of the increased efficiency that the private sector will bring. The school that could not use its new, much-hped computing suite for much of the autumn term would not agree. The two "21st century" computer rooms had no ventilation units. Pupils studying for Standard grades and Highers either sweltered in 30 degree heat or had to forego practical computing work.

Another difficult area is home economics where contractors have disavowed all responsibility for repair or purchase of essential equipment like freezers, cookers and washing machines. Despite thousands of hours of education department time this matter was overlooked.

Lack of respect for education and the primacy of the "bottom line" permeate the story of PPP in Glasgow. Attempts to influence the design process by teachers throughout 1999 were thwarted. Parents and pupils were equally sidelined. Alleged "commercial confidentiality" took precedence over involvement of on-the-spot educators and local communities. Any information released to school boards was only available if you signed 3Ed's version of the Official Secrets Act.

The EIS has always recognised that PPP was the only way that secondary schools would get the capital investment desperately needed and it was part of the unwritten political deal with the Scottish Executive over Glasgow's budget generally. We also expected that the new schools, whatever the jiggery-pokery behind the project, would offer an enhanced learning experience. Instead schools, while brighter and freshly painted, have fewer amenities and less subject choice. Nor did anyone anticipate the degree of upheaval and disruption as schools became building sites. Pupils have worked against a background of JCBs in the playground and cranes swinging slabs outside the classroom window. Will the Scottish Qualifications Authority factor this into exam marking?

The EIS recently invited the Health and Safety Executive to visit one establishment where Calor gas canisters were stored in an entrance way and intolerable dust levels had caused a range of bronchial problems.

If not quite an educational Skye Bridge, PPP in Glasgow has not been the glossy "success story" presented in some quarters. It is summed up for us by the Project 2002 public relations event last autumn where non-functional computers were set up in a room to create the desired image for visiting dignitaries. Maybe we need to look behind the frontage.

Willie Hart is secretary of Glasgow local association of the EIS.

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