Piles of dated maths and history textbooks stretched up to the ceiling, and reams of yellowing paper poked out from under layers of dust. Rusting lathes and mechanical saws lent a vague sense of menace to the scene.
This, for several years, was the “ghost wing” of Castlebrae Community High, an Edinburgh school with only 130 pupils that campaigners saved from closure in 2013 (see box, “It was like the Mary Celeste”, above right). The small roll meant that a whole section of the school had to be mothballed. It was subsequently used as a storage cupboard for the city council’s unwanted books, files and equipment.
On Tuesday morning last week, however, Castlebrae was transformed. Several dozen pupils gathered in the spring sunshine and unfurled a homemade “welcome” banner. Across the road, a piper started up a familiar medley of traditional Scottish tunes. Behind him was a battalion of 240 primary school children – Castlebrae’s roll was about to triple.
The children were from Castleview Primary, one of 17 Edinburgh schools forced to close in unprecedented circumstances earlier this month because of concerns about the safety of buildings. After Storm Gertrude ripped down a wall at Oxgangs Primary in January, a safety audit was ordered of all school buildings constructed under a public-private partnership arrangement.
Coming back from the Easter break, 8,340 pupils – from nursery children to secondary students about to sit crucial exams – had nowhere to go to school. Even now, many have not yet returned to their schools. Instead, they have been moved en masse to temporary premises around the city.
But in the midst of the inevitable blame game and predictions of catastrophe – heightened with an election around the corner – the situation has led to some uplifting scenes.
“It’s so lovely hearing the sound of younger children through the school,” said Norma Prentice, Castlebrae’s headteacher, whose school has long had a close relationship with the nearby primary. “It just made sense for Castleview to come in with us.”
But the logistics of getting the high school ready in time were daunting. School staff worked down to the wire, right through a holiday weekend. Days previously, it had looked like an impossible task, with no sign of the skips that were needed to cart away years of accumulated junk. But porters and cleaners were soon drafted in, helping to clear the school wing in just days.
The school also had to be made safe and comfortable for young children: moss was scrubbed from pathways, colourful artwork was put up on the walls, and smaller furniture was moved in so that five-year-olds would not be left dangling from tables designed for teenagers.
Now, according to Ms Prentice, “it’s like these classrooms have been here forever”.
‘We feel at home’
Lindsey Watt, Castleview’s headteacher, feels lucky: all her pupils and staff can stay together, and they have only had to decamp to a building across the road. Other Edinburgh heads have seen their staff and pupils scattered across the city, often facing journeys of several miles to ad-hoc classrooms.
“In a really difficult situation, we’ve been made to feel at home – the school is running as near as possible to normal. It’s amazing that we’ve managed to pull it off,” said Ms Watt.
But school life is still trickier under these circumstances. There aren’t enough toilets at Castlebrae, for a start. And Castleview has to keep driving up standards, regardless of the current situation: it is one of the schools in first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Attainment Challenge, which promises to improve the literacy, numeracy and health of children in poorer neighbourhoods.
The school seems, however, to be adapting quickly to its new surroundings: the classrooms are much smaller, so pupils are frequently taken outdoors to learn. It’s not practical to transport every last resource from Castleview, so teachers take advantage of Curriculum for Excellence’s flexibility to read different books with pupils.
The sight of men in hard hats and cherrypickers at Castleview could potentially be distracting, but classes watch and learn about the construction process.
“We teach our children to be resilient – we’re going to get through this and enjoy the experience,” said Ms Watt.
Castlebrae has “loved” hosting its younger peers, said Ms Prentice. The high-school pupils are helping their new primary schoolmates with their reading, and a joint library period has been fitted into the timetable. The older students will also share their skills as part of science experiments, cookery sessions and sports days.
Joint assemblies are planned, and Ms Watt hopes that the secondary pupils will share their younger friends’ enthusiasm for singing.
“It’s like one big extended family,” said Ms Watt. At the time of going to press, it remained unclear how long this family would have to spend together, but Ms Prentice was relaxed: “It’s set up now, and they can stay as long as they want.”
How Castlebrae Community High was saved from closure
There might have been no school for the 240 primary pupils to move into if councillors had pressed ahead with their plans to close Castlebrae Community High in 2013.
The school was struggling, with the roll falling to a fraction of the 988 it had in 1980. Council officials justified the closure on the grounds of “very poor” results, low attendance and a higher rate of exclusions than schools in similar circumstances.
But campaigners argued that the real cause for its decline, was, in fact, the threat of closure that had hung over the school for a decade and they helped to persuade Edinburgh councillors to disregard the advice of officials and keep the school open.
In February of this year, Education Scotland said in a report that Castlebrae had made “important improvements”, including “a more positive climate for learning”, improved student behaviour and higher expectations for all pupils.
Keeping classes going: a huge logistical operation
Edinburgh City Council took the unprecedented step of closing 17 schools earlier this month after safety checks raised concerns about buildings completed between 2002 and 2005.
Some 8,340 pupils – from nursery to upper secondary – were unable to return to their school after the Easter break, and many have still not been able to go back. Some 655 teachers were relocated in total along with students.
Ensuring that pupils could continue their education has required a huge logistical effort, with 80 buses taking pupils to 61 alternative premises each day.
As TESS went to press, the council had still not received details on when thousands of displaced pupils would be able to return to their own schools. Chief executive Andrew Kerr said that he had been disappointed by the lack of information from the Edinburgh Schools Partnership, which manages the school buildings and is responsible for repairs.