Government's school-building plans in disarray, says Brankin

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
Authorities told to look for underused buildings and empty land as potential sites for new schools

Other services and facilities will have to suffer if ambitious national targets for new school buildings are to defy the financial downturn.

A Scottish Government report on the school estate makes clear that the pound;5 billion needed to get schools up to scratch, identified by Audit Scotland last year, has become harder since recession gripped the country.

"Amid a tightening environment for the public finances, it will require commitment on all sides to prioritise resources and maximise value for money from investment in the school estate," states Building Better Schools: Investing in Scotland's Future. "This approach reflects current economic realities and principles set out in the concordat (with authorities)."

The Government made inroads this summer into the pound;5bn required when it announced a pound;1.25bn school-building programme in which its much-vaunted Scottish Futures Trust will have a central role - with a further pound;1bn earmarked through its current spending review. This week it announced 14 secondaries to benefit. Also, national statistics show that 75 per cent of schools are in a "good" or"satisfactory" state, compared to 68 per cent last year.

John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said the progress of the school-building programme was "an encouraging step in the right direction".

But he stressed the challenge was to build up momentum for continuous improvements across the country, and that authorities had to take much of the responsibility. They should be poring over every corner of their estates, for example, to seek underused buildings and land that could provide sites for schools.

The Government is concerned that older schools which are not yet part of building programmes could suffer: "Part-way through such a long-term improvement programme, there is the appearance of something of a `two- tier' estate - with a marked contrast between schools already improved and those still in need of attention."

But it stressed that a government-funded publication, Changing Classrooms, showed how older spaces could be "re-configured" to create inspirational experiences. "What is encouragingly evident is that the dominant factor in all of this is not so much any physical constraints, as people's imagination, empowerment and freedom," it states.

The education convener of Edinburgh City Council, which has one secondary in the initial 14 to benefit from the pound;1.25bn programme, was unsure where funding would come from and gave the news only a qualified welcome. Marilyne MacLaren, a Liberal Democrat, said: "We are very keen to know about the specific details of this investment, because it's clear the council will need to find some further money to complete the funding package."

Rhona Brankin, Labour's education spokeswoman, said the Government's school-building plans were in "disarray" because its Scottish Futures Trust - billed as providing better value than public-private partnerships - had not yet built a single school.

More than 12,000 pupils would benefit from the pound;1.25bn, although pound;450m would have to come from local authorities. An announcement on the initial tranche of primaries is expected before the end of the year. Others will be identified in 2011.

FALKIRK COUNCIL'S WAY

For years, supporters of public-private partnerships claimed they were "the only game in town". When the SNP came to power in 2007, it promised the Scottish Futures Trust would be a fairer way to fund public buildings - although, even now, no one seems sure how it will work.

There is another way, Falkirk Council claims, with the recent completion of a project that brought about four new secondary schools: the non-profit distributing organisation (NPDO).

It resembles PPP, in that private investment is crucial. Project manager Iain Henderson explained, however, that surplus funds are diverted to community and education projects, rather than shareholders.

Mr Henderson, who stressed that Argyll and Bute and Aberdeen City councils had taken a similar approach to building schools, said it also appealed because community and education representatives sat on the project board.

He is uncertain, however, what the Scottish Futures Trust means for future of NPDO.

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