The school that had too much too late

20th March 1998 at 00:00
The overspend of up to pound;2 million on new buildings at Stranraer Academy has helped jolt Dumfries and Galloway into setting its house in order. Unwelcome publicity, combined with other local difficulties including whether the council convener did or did not resign recently, has made politicians of all parties look to the image of the council.

A meeting of the executive committee this week decided to take no further action following an independent adviser's damning report on Stranraer Academy. Ken Macleod, director of education, said that "peace has broken out", with councillors seeking to end recriminations.

Joan Mitchell, leader of the Liberal Democrats who share administration of the council with the Independents, said: "We have to learn lessons in a cool, cross-party way."

The report by John Jenkins, an independent adviser and former council chief executive, contrasts the success of the new building in providing a "good working environment" for pupils and teachers with its financial record. He likened it to the Channel Tunnel "which has been described as an engineering masterpiece and a financial disaster".

In rejecting any disciplinary measures, councillors have accepted Mr Jenkins's distinction in allocating responsibility rather than blame. But he says the project, put to the Scottish Office in 1992 and begun three years later, "lost its way" culminating in a pound;2 million overspend on a project budgeted at pound;10 million and delays of 37 weeks on an original 72-week programme. The upgrading was because buildings on two sites were in poor condition and suffered "from the sixties factor - maximum space for minimum cash". The plan was for a "bold architectural statement" at the main entrance to the town and "an inviting, pleasant, creative atmosphere" for the 1,300 pupils.

Extra construction work cost pound;1.7 million more and there was an extra pound;300,000 for furniture and professional fees. Mr Jenkins said this represented an irrecoverable "real loss" to the council.

The worst problems came before local government reorganisation. "The contract got off to the worst possible start from which it never really recovered."

Control of the project by the design team and the specially appointed client monitoring manager broke down, with the monitoring manager having to take leave for "rest and recuperation". Mr Jenkins also states that there was an apparent "lack of communication and a lack of trust between officers in the council".

There were also too many late changes. Specifications for light fittings, ceiling tiles and floor finishes should have been vetted by the education department before the tender was prepared.

But Mr Jenkins said there was "no justification for the council taking disciplinary action against any officer". There were many extenuating circumstances, and the report suggests that the council aims to learn from experience. "Too much was required of too few in too short a time."

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