Drift and indecision are the worst part of school closures

5th October 2012 at 01:00
When the gates are shut on a community school, both pupils and the wider community can feel stranded

The City of Edinburgh Council has initiated the statutory consultation prior to the proposed closure of Craigmillar's Castlebrae High. No other Edinburgh school closures are proposed.

In August 2007, the newly elected Liberal-SNP coalition mooted plans to close 26 schools, three of them secondaries, one of which was Castlebrae. In my column in TESS that month, I argued not against closure in principle, even though the school of which I was then head was one of the 26, but against drift and indecision. I warned that whenever "a proposal to close a school becomes public, parents move their child before the end". That is what happened at Castlebrae. Despite huge efforts by staff, parental insecurity induced the haemorrhaging of pupil numbers.

The roll now barely exceeds 200 and is reducing. The new administration is right to close Castlebrae: not because it is a failing school but because a school of that size in a city context cannot provide a genuine comprehensive experience for its learners. Timetables and subject choices become limited and, perhaps even more crucially, the young people operate in a restricted social context where even significant numbers of their local peers are being educated elsewhere and few children from outside the community are coming in.

Although this is the right decision, it should not have had to happen. A community without a secondary is robbed of its vital centre and Castlebrae was also a community high school that served young people and the adult population.

There are three concepts essential to an understanding of what is happening: community schools in areas of multiple deprivation; parental choice; and comprehensive education. Except in periods of population growth, you can pair any two of these but not all three. Parental choice and community schools in areas of poverty lead to drops in the roll and a de facto end to the comprehensive nature of such schools. Parental choice and comprehensives can work but only if you engineer catchment areas to be genuinely socially mixed - so no community schools serving marginalised areas there. Community schools, even in areas of poverty, can be comprehensive and can work - but only if parental choice goes. I know which of the three "principles" I'd happily jettison.

But Edinburgh may not have to go down that road. The planning permission to rebuild Portobello High in the local park has newly been reversed. The new Portobello High could be built on the Castlebrae site. How would that go down in Portobello?

Alex Wood, Former headteacher, works at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration.

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