Don't say we don't care

27th February 2004 at 00:00
Edinburgh has done everything possible to minimise disturbance to special needs pupils as it replaces ageing schools, says Ewan Aitken

I was dismayed to read the Opinion article "Left in the dark by PPP" (TESS, February 13) which alleged that the needs of special needs pupils are being neglected by Edinburgh's education authority. This is totally untrue.

The article suggested that we would just shunt children from one school to another without consideration or consultation. That is extremely insulting and is without any basis in fact.

Edinburgh's "Smart Schools" initiative aims to improve the city's school buildings in all sectors. We recognise that despite the presumption of mainstreaming, for many children with special needs a mainstream education is not appropriate. We also recognise that many parents prefer a special school for their children.

For this reason we are making a considerable investment in special school provision. By 2006-07, we will have built six new special schools using a range of funding mechanisms. Oaklands School, for example, is the first project to be financed using prudential borrowing. The Oaklands project is an excellent example of our commitment to achieve the best for our SEN pupils.

When our original plans to build a new school in partnership with Capability Scotland fell through, we made an immediate commitment that we would build the Oakland community a new school. We explored every possible avenue. As a result very soon we will be going out to consult on site proposals for a new Oaklands. Our commitment to consult extends well beyond the formal statutory process and we will continue to involve staff, pupils and parents as the plans progress so they will really influence the final designs.

In all our work, we constantly face difficult decisions and compromises.

Sometimes circumstances outside our control mean we have to change our plans, but our determined aim remains the same - to get the best possible outcome for our pupils.

Our original proposals for Willowpark and Graysmill schools, to which the article refers directly, was to amalgamate them in a refurbished building.

As a direct result of listening to parents and staff views during the consultation process, the public private partnership (PPP) contract included a mandatory variant for a combined Graysmill-Willowpark school, rather than refurbishment, if a site became available.

New sites did become available - although maybe not in a way we would have liked. A serious fire at Oxgangs primary opened up the opportunity to consider the development of an "educational campus". Assessment of this option, following widespread consultation with the schools and communities involved, showed that it was feasible to bring mainstream primary and secondary schools together on the same site with a brand new Graysmill-Willowpark school.

Another fire destroyed the building being refurbished for our proposed secondary for pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD). This meant delays there but also another opportunity.

Investigations showed us that it would now be realistic to fund a purpose-built school and house it on the Willowpark site, specifically to meet the needs of our secondary SEBD students.

While there were real benefits for the school communities under these plans, they also meant difficult choices. Our construction partners suggested a timetable where both schools would open in 2005 but would see the Willowpark pupils being decanted to Graysmill for a year.

The other option was to delay the construction of the new SEBD school for yet another year, which meant pupils continuing to be taught in a building deemed unsatisfactory by HM Inspectorate.

It was hard to balance the needs of one group of vulnerable children with another given their very different needs and, in one case, with few vocal advocates? It was a tough choice, but a real one that we, as an education authority, had to consider in detail. As usual, we asked all those involved, parents, staff and pupils. The result is a comprehensive report, agreed at the council meeting last week, to postpone the new SEBD school for a year to prevent the need for a decant. It is a decision greatly influenced by our consultation process.

This shows the February 13 article to be absolutely wrong - we do care a great deal about special education and the views of our parents, pupils and staff in deciding the best way forward for all.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for youth strategy and education on Edinburgh City Council.

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