Hyslop gets real about estates

19th June 2009 at 01:00
Accused of `dithering', Education Secretary announces pound;1.25 billion school building plan

The education Secretary moved this week to take the sting out of the controversy over the Government's school building plans, announcing a new pound;1.25 billion school estates programme which will deliver around 55 new schools.

But, in a noisy debate in Parliament on Wednesday, Fiona Hyslop was repeatedly accused by opposition MSPs of wasting the two years since the SNP Government came to power and claiming credit for schools commissioned under the previous administration.

Ms Hyslop admitted that only pound;800m of the additional investment would be new money and that the primary schools involved would not be built until 2014-15 and the secondaries by 2017-18. The first tranche of secondaries to benefit will be announced in September, and the first group of primaries by the end of the year.

She said almost 90 per cent of the new funding would be targeted on secondary schools, for which local authorities would have to meet a third of the cost. The remainder would go towards refurbishing primary schools, with local and central government putting up the investment on a 50-50 basis.

Audit Scotland has estimated that Pounds 5 billion needs to be spent on the school estate to ensure it is fit for purpose. Ms Hyslop said she had accepted all the recommendations for a long-term strategy outlined in the spending watchdog's March 2008 report, Improving the School Estate.

The Education Secretary added that the Government faced a legacy of under- investment in schools during the last three decades of the 20th century. Amid constant interruptions from MSPs, she repeatedly pointed out that the new measures would benefit 35,000 pupils in addition to the 100,000 pupils who will have moved out of crumbling schools in the lifetime of the current Parliament by 2011.

Ms Hyslop sought to lance the boil over charges of "dithering" by saying that her Government had signed off eight major local authority building projects since it came to power in May 2007 involving 49 schools, with another three projects in the pipeline. She insisted she would meet the SNP's pledge to match the previous administration's school building programme "brick by brick", adding another 250 new or refurbished schools by 2011 to the 320 rebuilt in the first eight years of devolution.

The minister offered a further pledge that a new school estates strategy, which will be published along with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) in September, would set out a long-term ambition to wipe out poor school accommodation altogether.

The number of pupils in such classrooms was 260,000 when the Government came to power, Ms Hyslop said, and the figure would be reduced to 65,000 as a result of this week's announcement.

Isobel Hutton, the education spokesperson for Cosla, welcomed the announcement. She commented: "We have always said that education is a top priority for councils, so any money for schools is extremely welcome. Make no mistake: this is new money provided by government - entirely additional to funding local government would expect to receive in future years for capital investment.

"This is a win-win situation. It is a win for Scotland's councils who have additional money for a priority area and, perhaps even more importantly, it is a win for pupils and teachers who will learn and teach in state-of- the-art facilities."

The new programme will be funded initially through traditional capital investment, giving rise to accusations from Labour that the Government's Scottish Futures Trust, intended as an alternative to the public private partnership model, is "dead in the water."

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