Building up a problem

4th April 2008 at 01:00
For teachers in their 50s, and many in their 40s, the recent Audit Scotland report on the poor condition of the Scottish school estate maybe didn't matter too much.

Possibly worn down by promises of school refurbishment or new-build that have never been honoured, it would be easy to take a detached approach of "Same old, same old", "Thankfully I've only got 10 more years of these crumbling classrooms left", or "I'll be well into my retirement before those problems come home to roost."

The report is, however, required reading and should have been sent to every probationary teacher in the land - and be given out free in maternity wards. For it is the teachers and parents of 20 and 30 years' time, on whom its contents will have most impact.

When I used to debate the large increases in public spending on Scottish education during the 1980s, it occurred to me that Tory ministers made a serious misjudgment in not having a more ambitious school-building programme. As with the many roads, bridges and hospitals, ministers could have taken the credit for their munificence when cutting ribbons. Instead, the greater education spending went generally on overheads such as salaries and a growing administration.

It may have been a coincidence that so much of the 1960s baby boom new-build needed replacing after only 40 years, but Labour reasoned, correctly, that new schools are popular.

Although narrowly unseated in last year's election, I found little criticism of the Scottish Executive's investment in new school buildings. The debate focused instead on how it should be financed, with the SNP sowing suspicion about PFIPPP and suggesting it had a far more preferable scheme up its sleeve.

As is usual, the Audit Scotland report suggests that PFIPPP financing has its pros and cons. One advantage is that privately-financed schools look set to be relatively well maintained for the next 30 years, while those that have to rely on the council retaining adequate sums for refurbs will have their fingers crossed that the maintenance budget is not raided when the going gets tough - as has happened before.

The disadvantage is that too many councils have made poor provision for their contracts in the future - creating a large shortfall in funding that will have to be paid for - although I expect this will only make financial conditions even harder for non PFIPPP schools. So nobody will win if finances have to be trimmed.

The other worries that the report points to are the difficulties caused by poor build or design quality. This baffles me.

Am I the only person who wonders why we have to keep re-inventing the wheel? After decades, centuries, of building local schools, why do we have to keep designing new buildings as if they are the schools of the future? Do we really need all these monuments to architects' egos and le Corbusier copies that often end up being pulled down before their first teachers have retired?

When I attended Edinburgh's Portobello High in the early 1970s, I started in the old stone-built annexe that had been my father's school in the 1940s. Now converted to attractive flats, its replacement only just remains in use, condemned to be razed once the money can be found for an all-singing, all-dancing new kid on the block. Up the road, Holyrood High, 10 years younger, is already being replaced.

Call me a cynic, but it would not surprise me if Portobello's third-generation building were outlived by its more robust predecessor grandparent - and if Audit Scotland were still reporting how local buildings were still not being given the priority they deserve.

Brian Monteith left school ... to study architecture.

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