Memo from the rubble

11th June 2004 at 01:00
As the debate continues on funding and designing the next generation of schools, Rory Macdonald offers a pupil's experience

pdated textbooks: pound;50. Cleaning staff, to scrape chewing gum from the underside of desks: pound;100. A good education: priceless. For everything else there's the public private partnership (PPP) . . . with a slight delay.

The ambition and even-handedness of East Lothian Council to improve its high schools is commendable. Pupils will no longer have to go outside to reach classes, the classrooms will be up to date and there will be fully functional facilities. Every one of the authority's six high schools will be done at the same time, to the same standard. No favouritism, whereby one school would be done at a time or get better disabled ramps than the other.

Since the plans were announced in early 2001, the building work has run into some problems - there has been nothing happening since October last year until now when a new contractor, Balfour Beatty, was brought in to clean up someone else's mess.

What mess? The mess whereby Dutch-based building contractor Ballast, which was originally contracted to do the multimillion pound project, went the way of the dodo and the woolly mammoth, leaving East Lothian and its schools stranded - and semi-demolished in some cases.

Questions must be asked as to why Ballast was given the contract in the first place. By typing Ballast construction into the Google search engine, it is easy to access information such as that on where a report dated July 4, 2002, states that "the Dutch-owned construction and dredging group is planning to withdraw from the UK, and more than 1,200 jobs could be lost if no buyer is found."

Ballast began work on the schools in Easter 2003 - more than eight months after this announcement.

At my old school, all that had been done when construction work ceased was the demolition of the home economics department and one wall of the main hall, briefly home to a nest of pigeons. The car park to the front of the school was taken over by stockpiled building materials, thus blocking off the main entrance. Electrical sockets were installed in classrooms still to be vacated.

Portakabins were in place as replacement classrooms, though these are dull and uninspiring. Everybody just appreciated these as facts of life and things that had to be put up with: in the end there would be top class educational facilities and it would only last until summer 2004.

Bust went Ballast; work stopped and uncertainty over when work would resume grew. The effect of all this on the staff and pupils is not to be overlooked.

First-year pupils coming to the "big school" were met by a hard task being made even harder. Finding your way around a new place can be difficult at the best of times, not least when you are 12 and that place is a construction site of a school. There was a loss of class time, which isn't going to have hordes of pupils worrying; if anything, it is a treat. But how much of a treat will it be as exam time rolls around? It will make interesting reading when the results come out in August.

Another of the woes is the increased number of sixth-year pupils leaving throughout the year. Morale is low. The year that is said to be the best of your school life has unfortunately fallen by the wayside. Without a fully operational school, pupils begin to think why bother?

East Lothian's PR department disputed any adverse effects on pupils and staff, saying the council has regular meetings with school representatives, from headteachers to pupils and their parents. They dismissed the idea of morale being affected as "puerile" and "childish". It is true that, many of the normalities of school life have been retained. Pupils still go to class, there is still a high quality of teaching, there are still fire drills and cookies are still 32p in the canteen. None of this was the fault of the schools themselves.

In the end, East Lothian will have six top class educational facilities.

These facilities will, all going well, be complete by their new target dates although, in most of the schools, the current fifth year can look forward to a final year in Portakabins.

As work returns to the sites, there is a distinct hint of anger and frustration at the delays incurred. Hopefully, this will ease as progress is made and the six secondaries will be schools of which everyone can be proud.

Rory Macdonald was an East Lothian pupil until this year.

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