Unions demand PFI inquiry after Edinburgh closures
Calls for an urgent inquiry into privately financed school buildings are mounting, amid fears that unprecedented safety concerns which uprooted more than 8,000 Edinburgh pupils may also emerge elsewhere.
An emergency motion from the EIS union demanding an investigation was approved at the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) annual conference this week, after 17 schools in the capital were forced to close.
The motion was agreed as one headteachers’ leader expressed “huge admiration” for school staff working overtime to provide education in “extreme circumstances”. Another called for exam chiefs to give special consideration to affected pupils “thrown off their stride at a crucial point in their exam preparation”.
Delegates at the STUC backed an independent inquiry into private finance initiative (PFI) and public-private partnership (PPP) schools, to scrutinise “the specific circumstances of the Edinburgh schools’ contract but also, more broadly, the PPP/PFI model”.
Union officials want to know how many other councils allowed construction companies to “self-certify” the standards of new school buildings, after Edinburgh council leader Andrew Burns said that the authority had not itself inspected the 17 buildings upon completion between 2002 and 2005.
EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan told TESS that, although most councils claimed that they inspected new buildings, people would no longer “accept a bland assurance that somebody’s driven past a school and had a look at it”. Under PPP and PFI projects, private contractors pay for the construction costs and then rent the building back to the public sector. This policy was favoured by the Labour-Liberal Democrat administrations that held power at the Scottish Parliament from 1999 to 2007.
‘Tear up contracts’
Mr Flanagan has suggested that an inquiry could pave the way for councils to renegotiate contracts and redirect money to frontline education services.
He drew a parallel with the Skye Bridge, a notorious PFI project in the 1990s: mass refusal to pay one of the world’s most expensive road tolls led to the charge being scrapped by the Scottish executive in 2004. Edinburgh’s problems emerged following a safety audit of 17 PPP schools, ordered after Storm Gertrude tore down a wall at Oxgangs Primary in January. Some 8,340 pupils missed lessons when the council announced a fortnight ago that those schools affected would not reopen after Easter because of fears over construction standards.
The majority of the 2,000 pupils affected who were preparing for exams resumed classes by last week, although some practical exams – in cookery, drama and languages – were postponed. Most pupils, however, were this week still being educated away from their school and no return dates will be announced until safety reports have been completed.
Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, said that while he recalled children being moved when a school was flooded or burned down, it had never happened with so many schools at one time. Mr Thewliss said that he had “huge, huge admiration” for the commitment of staff – in both the affected schools and those taking extra pupils – who were “pulling together on behalf of young people under the most extreme of circumstances”, with some cancelling family holidays and working until 9pm.
However, Euan Duncan, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said that, despite teachers’ efforts, the disruption could have a serious impact. “Teaching is about relationships, and school buildings are the community dwellings. While teaching may proceed, many children have been thrown off their stride at a crucial point. I’m pleased the Scottish Qualifications Authority has extended some deadlines, and hope they will take a close look at the results of candidates in these schools before finalising grades,” he said.
Tom Rae, head of Craigmount High, one of the schools closed, helped pupils relocate to Tynecastle High as they prepared for exams. “This is a unique situation and ensuring things go smoothly is down to incredible efforts of both staff teams,” he said.
The SNP said that there was a “strong case” for a longer-term inquiry, adding that there could be “very serious questions to answer”.
Fears for children with additional needs
Concerns have been expressed about the effect of the Edinburgh school closures on pupils with additional support needs (ASN).
The Scottish Children’s Services Coalition (SCSC) told TESS that coverage of the “debacle” had focused on pupils taking exams rather than those in special schools such as Braidburn and Springfield, or those with ASN in mainstream schools. “Many of these children and young people, some of the most vulnerable in our society, require a stable and settled environment with considerable support, and this will clearly be threatened by these new arrangements,” a spokesman said. Rev Gayle Taylor (pictured), chaplain to Braidburn School, said: “I know how much support young people get from the social side of schools and the relationships they have there. Young people just don’t manage as well without those anchors.”
An Edinburgh council spokesman said: “Particular care has gone into planning contingency arrangements for the 100 pupils with special support needs. We have carried out full engagement with their families around their learning and care so we can do everything we can to minimise disruption.”