Curse of the new strikes PPP schools

4th June 2004 at 01:00
Scotland's rebuilding plans take no account of heritage and culture, says Michael Russell

The Educational Institute of Scotland has done a service to Scottish heritage as well as Scottish education by undertaking its survey on attitudes to the supposedly massive programme of school building that is meant to be changing the face of Scottish education (TESS, last week). I say "supposedly" because actual progress is far from clear, as the Scottish Parliament's education committee pointed out last week.

Leaving aside the reality of whether most of Scotland is being offered a fresh start, the detail in the EIS survey is fascinating. Only a quarter of respondents had been consulted about the facilities they needed in any new construction and that number fell when specific facilities were considered.

It may not be surprising that teachers are the last people to be asked what they need for effective teaching, but overall they remain enthusiastic about any attempt to provide better places in which to work while appearing less than convinced about the sacred principle of newness which seems to underpin the whole current process.

The thinking behind that sacred principle, much articulated by politicians, officials and developers, is that new is always good and old is always bad.

Yet the cost of adhering to such a flawed argument is vast, both in monetary terms and in terms of heritage and culture.

A case in point is Hutton primary, now under imminent threat of closure by Scottish Borders Council. The present school was built in 1844 and its list of schoolmasters can be traced to 1650. Certainly the building needs to be improved and an HMI report in October 1999 drew attention to accommodation and health and safety matters. Within a year, Hutton had been placed third on the council's priority projects list and a follow-up report in 2001 reiterated the criticism but noted that the necessary rebuild was due for completion by 2005.

Towards the end of 2002, parents were invited to a meeting at which plans for decanting the pupils during the work were discussed and a timetable set to kick in the following February. But suddenly everything was put on hold while a public private partnership (PPP) bid by the council was developed; assurances were given that the pound;334,000 budgeted for Hutton was still secure.

Now the council wants to close the school, claiming that even the "interim costs" of refurbishment have suddenly (and inexplicably) risen to almost pound;450,000 and that it is "40th" on the priority list. The council is also making the inevitable noises about the impossibility of providing a good education in such a constrained and old-fashioned place, even though the landowner has offered to gift more land and the community wants Hutton school to be made suitable for the future.

The school's history alone demands that, as does the pattern of community living. But exciting new PPP is to take precedence over boring old provision. The fact that the existing building could be cost-effectively upgraded counts for nothing.

The same applies even to buildings of unique social, architectural and historic merit. One such is Marr College in Troon. This is a complicated tale, which involves the school's ownership by one body (the Marr Trust) but its occupation by another (South Ayrshire Council) on a full repairing lease, set against a background of perpetual feuding between the trust and the council.

According to Troon councillor Peter Convery, the present cost of bringing Marr College up to standard is in the order of pound;10 million - in itself a condemnation of South Ayrshire which has allowed such dereliction to develop. However, he goes on to note that "even if the council was to spend that kind of money on the building the education (sic) suitability of the interior would still come in with a bottom of the table D rating".

Consequently proposals are being touted to demolish a building that is not yet 100 years old and - you guessed it - hand over the magnificent site to a house builder, much to the fury of a whole range of interests including former pupils such as myself.

Mr Convery's statement is, of course, mince. Any architect worthy of the name would be able to find many ways of creating a suitable interior. South Ayrshire just don't want to do it, so hands are publicly wrung while the council makes sure it gets its collective way and some new trophy buildings courtesy of fashionable PPP on which the builder will make a fat and continuing profit. It is the community that loses an irreplaceable asset.

The antidote to all this is my third building: Curtis High School in New York. It has just received an award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy after a $25 million restoration which included replacing terracotta and limestone decoration across five structures. The school is the oldest educational building on Staten Island and this year celebrates the 100th anniversary of its first graduating class. The Landmark Conservancy wanted to mark the good sense in not only ensuring the future of the building, but also its future as a school.

If the most commercially oriented society on earth can realise that "new" is not always best then there is some hope. But presently that hope is thin on the ground in Scotland.

Marr is a particular worry for even its distinguishing interior features - such as the granite entrance hall, which resembles a Communist mausoleum, complete with a bust of the school's benefactor, the Troon coal merchant C K Marr - are being disfigured by careless use. Perhaps it will just crumble away until the council says that there is literally nothing to be done - therefore justifying once more what it really wants to do.

I suspect that many of those who teach in significant buildings would like the option of their renewal, rather than their destruction. So would communities, pupils and parents; in fact, all of those who know that you cannot build a better future by destroying the past. If only fad-struck councillors and directors of education knew that as well.

Michael Russell is a writer and broadcaster.

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