Mr Fix-it campaign floored by red tape

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
But we will not give up trying for a school fit for teaching in the 21st century, says John McTernan

Most of my adult life I have been able to fix things. I do not mean that I have any flair with manual labour - a plumber, a decorator, an engineer I am not. What I am good at is getting results out of public bureaucracies.

When I was a councillor in South London I got traffic lights installed, secured funding for a wildlife centre, relocated a split-site primary school to a single modernised building and lifted parking restrictions on the main shopping street in my patch. I persuaded the London Docklands Development Corporation and the London Borough of Southwark jointly to establish and fund a Chef's School in Butler's Wharf.

I even cajoled a bemused and philistine Labour Group into giving Nick Serota at the Tate pound;1 million to study the feasibility of using an abandoned, listed power station as an art gallery - the result was Tate Modern.

By the time I came to Scotland as a political adviser there was no combination of local government, central government, voluntary and private sectors and quangos with which I had not struck a successful deal.

When my oldest son went to Boroughmuir High, I thought I would put my skills to some good use, so I joined the school board. Eventually, I became chair of the board and that is when I took up the campaign to provide a new building for the school. Boroughmuir celebrates its centenary next year, and has been in its current building since the 1910s.

The current school building is magnificent and justly listed, but everyone agrees that it is no longer fit for purpose in the 21st century. The site is landlocked and the 1200 or so pupils have to share a tiny tarmac playground which has been encroached on in the past 40 years by car parking and newer buildings.

Internally, there is not adequate space to deliver a modern curriculum. The recent school production of Grease was backed by musicians whose skill and style was a credit to their endeavour and the commitment of teaching staff rather than to the 'broom-cupboards' which they have as practice rooms in the school.

The school is academically successful - topping the exams league table in Edinburgh the other week - and the vast majority of pupils go on to further and higher education. Yet accommodation is so cramped that the S6 common room is a converted basement store room only accessible from outside the school.

The list could go on. The case for a new school is clear and is fully supported by City of Edinburgh Council which made it top of the list for its recent bid for a second round of public private partnership funding.

Even when the Executive's allocation did not quite meet Edinburgh's aspirations, the council confirmed to headteacher Jack Hamilton and myself that on every count Boroughmuir was the number one priority for a new site and building.

Then things became complicated. The school is full to overflowing because it is popular with pupils and parents, but it also serves an area which has had almost constant population growth for over 30 years. Virtually every spare piece of land from Brunstfield to the City Bypass has been built on to meet the demand for houses in Edinburgh.

The result is a buoyant supply of children but virtually nowhere to build a secondary school. Luckily, however, there is one site within walking distance of the existing school which would be perfect - the Astley Ainslie Hospital in the Grange area. It is not only in public hands, but also under-occupied and Lothian Health Board, the City Council and local people all agree that it should be redeveloped as a school site, not for more executive housing.

o, the public sector (in the form of the education department) wants a site for a school, the public sector (in the form of the Scottish Executive) has given capital approval for a new building and the public sector (in the form of the health board) has a site the right size and in the right place.

It should be so simple. But it's not.

After months of meeting, talking and planning, the house of cards collapsed. Firstly, the council was informed by the Executive that the deal broke "Treasury rules". Secondly, the health board revealed that, because of a range of service reviews it was undertaking, the earliest that any land could be available was 2010.

Finally, the council said that with no site and no money it would start looking at ways to upgrade the existing Boroughmuir site.

So for the foreseeable future 1,200 pupils will continue to be crammed into a building that is too old and too small.

This has been a huge learning process for me. I tried to use all my political wiles, mobilising formal and informal networks to get this moving but I failed. It is an outrage that a health board can effectively blight a secondary school.

Personally, I am loathe to support direct elections to health service boards. Yet I cannot help but contrast the support and commitment we experienced from both officials and politicians in the Scottish Executive and Edinburgh City Council with the apparent unwillingness of the health board to assist. Perhaps board members more directly accountable to the public would not be able to be so dilatory.

At the very least it is clear that we need a public public partnership scheme to parallel public private partnerships. I am, sadly, sure that our experience could be replicated around the country.

As for me, even though I'm moving back to London, I've promised the school board that I will help to build a group that can look imaginatively at how to transform the existing site plus the old Darroch Annexe.

We are not going to give up on our ambition of making Boroughmuir High the architectural, as well as the educational, jewel in Edinburgh's crown.

This is John McTernan's last regular column. He is joining the Prime Minister's policy unit at 10 Downing Street.

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