The sod and the scandal
I am a little worried about the stability of Kostuss, the Dutch-led consortium behind the public private partnership that is currently erecting the new Greenfield Academy while we inhabit temporary accommodation.
Rumours abound about difficulties with cash flow and George Crumley reported hearing stories about workmen going unpaid and Scottish sub-contractors awaiting settlement.
No doubt this was the reason behind Richard Dick's rectorial three-line whip for attendance at this afternoon's Kostuss-arranged sod-cutting ceremony for the new games hall.
Thus it was that I found myself amidst a phalanx of crowd extras foregathered in our former school grounds at 4pm, listening to Bill Bennett, the PPP chief consultant, saluting the glad confident morning that was about to dawn upon us. Unsurprisingly, he brushed aside any dodgy questions before anyone had a chance to ask them.
"It's a great pleasure to welcome so many councillors, contractors, representatives of the local press and I er I the staff of Greenfield Academy," he remembered everyone in priority order, "as we come to cut the first sod of turf for the new games hall. And I'd particularly like to welcome the senior consultancy team from Kostuss, in whose constructional and financial management the project's been proceeding so smoothly, both here and in neighbouring authorities.
"It's time that our children were given modern surroundings and equipment to I er I equip them properly for education in the 21st century, and in my visits to our peer authorities I've been staggered by the provision on offer, ranging from clean, attractive classrooms with brand new furniture to IT suites that would make IBM's mainframe computers of just three years ago look dated.
"Let no one be in any doubt about this," he continued in evangelical mode, "PPP is clearly the way ahead for educational provision in this country and I simply fail to understand why some authorities are still dragging their feet over it. In a few years from now, we'll be on a par with the best and ahead of the rest, looking over our shoulders at the Luddites and singing "Who's Sorry Now?"
Much of the assembly seemed to find this highly amusing but I wasn't so sure; I remain sceptical.
The tall blonde chap with horn-rimmed spectacles standing next to me seemed to find it equally unamusing, so I turned and introduced myself.
"Morris Simpson," I proffered a hand. "English teacher at Greenfield Academy. It's a bit rich, isn't it? All this nonsense about 'no worries'.
Talk about Hakuna Matata, eh? I don't know why they couldn't give the contract to a Scottish company. I've never trusted the Dutch myself I" "Aah. I em thanking yeu," he introduced himself in a Flemish accent so heavy that I hoped he hadn't caught what I'd said in too much detail. "My own name ish Frederick Ninah. I em ffrum Emshterdemm end em here to owffersee the next stage off thiss proyect."
"Oh, how interesting." I realised he hadn't caught the full import of my remarks and tried to move on as quickly as possible with a witty interjection. "So if you're from Amsterdam, can I guess what part of the Greenfield Academy contract you're responsible for?" I asked with a smile on my face, "Is it the drugs?"
"Shorry, Meester Sampson," he raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Drugs contract? Neu, neu. There ish neu drugs contract for Greenfield Academy."
"No. No, I know that," I sighed quietly. "It was a joke."
Let's hope their financial and constructional management is better than their sense of humour.
Indications of the Scottish Executive's plans for the future curriculum became apparent today in a staff circular which outlined Mr Dick's plans to introduce a greater degree of vocational entitlement in co-operation with Milton FE College, whose lecturers look set to be joining us at the staffroom tea urn in future years.
"It's ridiculous!" expostulated Sandra Denver, transparently aware of an imminent threat to history in the second year option choices.
"Half of these lecturers won't have a GTC certificate and what's the point in teaching pupils about hairdressing and plumbing and building and beauty therapy if we want them to go to university? These courses have got no academic merit whatsoever!"
"I think that's maybe the point, Sandra," Angus Douglas explained gently.
"What's the point of trying to give academic courses to those who don't want them and will never need them if they don't want to go to university?"
"Don't want to go to university?" queried Sandra, as if she couldn't quite grasp the concept. "But who wouldn't want to go to university after school?"
"Well, quite a few, actually, despite what the Government would have us - and them - think," answered Angus, who has spent much energy successfully dissuading awkward pupils from taking modern languages in the third year, thus availing himself of a timetable which is the envy of most teachers in the school.
"Personally," he continued, "I think it's a very good thing if non-academic pupils are encouraged to follow routes that will fit them for a place in society that's more appropriate than an ersatz place on an ersatz course at an ersatz university. At least it means that, 20 years from now, when I call for a plumber to come and fix my boiler I'll stand a good chance of getting one, instead of a psychology graduate who wants to analyse the problem or a media studies graduate who wants to decontextualise it."
Put like that, I have to admit that his thoughts made some sense. Maybe some day we'll bite the bullet and provide schools that are especially developed for vocational courses at secondary level. After all, it's coming up for 40 years since we tried it before, so it's probably an idea whose time is about to come again.
More worrying news emerged about Kostuss this morning.
Simon Young, my principal teacher, has a friend in another authority that has benefited from the ministrations of our Dutch friends and when he entered the departmental base whistling that old Connie Francis hit "Who's sorrry now", I realised he had news to impart.
"I'll tell you who's going to be sorry now, Morris," he explained. "Andy Park was on the phone last night, asking if we had the same mob in charge of PPP as they did."
"Why was that?"
"Because there's been arson about, as the old joke goes.
"Andy's school's still had some mobile classrooms on site as they draw the contract to a close there. And last night they were torched."
"Pupils?" I posed the obvious question.
"Apparently not. Sole responsibility was claimed by disaffected - and anonymous - workers from Kostuss or their sub-contractors who haven't been paid."
Personally, I find it hard to believe.
It seems a pity that my wife's school roof hasn't benefited from the super efficiency that accrues to PPP initiatives. Alas, the efficacy of weatherproofing measures at Rockston Primary still owes more to a legacy from the 1970s enthusiasm for flat roofs than to any sensible design to keep rain out.
The clerk of works visited the school today, but only after Gail had written to the director of education asking why she has had a leak in her classroom roof for the past seven years, and indicating that she had sent a copy of the letter to the Parkland Gazette. Actually, she hadn't, but it was a good bluff that drew immediate response. It just seems a shame that her headteacher is no longer speaking to her.
Anyway, the clerk of works has compiled a report that bemoans the 19 (yes, 19!) layers of repairs that have been lavished upon the roof since the school's construction. He has agreed to deploy an immediate action response team to resolve the problem forthwith.
They are scheduled to arrive next month.
My worries about Kostuss have proved well-founded.
Simon's friend Andy Park was on the phone to him this afternoon with some outrageous but true up-to-the-minute accounts of what was happening in his school.
"Apparently, the head stopped all the clocks and cut off the telephone at 3pm, not to mention locking all the doors. Then he ordered the staff to go home," Simon reported.
"How come?" queried Irene Donnelly.
"Kostuss went belly up last night. Its parents could no longer support it and subcontractors are looking for their pound of flesh."
"But why shut the school?"
"They had to," Simon explained. "With all assets to be realised, there were reclamation units advancing on several fronts, whether from Kostuss or the umpteen sub-contractors who were trying to reclaim their rightful property of PCs, chairs, whiteboards, desks and the like. So Andy's headteacher declared the school a no-go zone after 3.30pm and instructed the janitor to arm every alarm, after which he headed for home with the keys in his pocket.
"And you can see where he's coming from. I mean, his school has benefited enormously from the public private partnership and he doesn't want to lose the competitive advantage he's gained from all the new equipment they've received in the past 12 months. Who would?"
I nodded slowly, a sadder and a wiser man.
It certainly brings a new dimension to the concept of going Dutch.