Last week Gillian Tee, Edinburgh’s Director of Children and Families announced that no secondary schools would close until after the present school building programme is completed in 2010-11. The review of the school estate returns therefore to consideration of primaries, nurseries and community centres. The three threatened secondaries, Castlebrae, Drummond and Wester Hailes, have three years’ grace.
The administration deserves credit for this decision. The original planned (and utterly necessary) review was intended to start with primaries and nurseries and move subsequently to secondaries. The belated decision to rush the process and include the secondaries was a misjudgement and led to a very inconsistent case on secondary closures. This decision however, correct as it now is, leaves major problems to be resolved.
Firstly, Edinburgh does have too many schools, a subsequent poor use of resources and several major accommodation dilemmas, not the least of which is how to re-house Boroughmuir High School.
Edinburgh’s biggest problem however is how to reorganise schools so that the outcome is a sustainable secondary estate. To do that the City has to escape its own heritage of built-in social division. Comprehensive schools cannot work (in a context of parental choice) when some schools serve areas of unalloyed affluence and others areas of overwhelming poverty. In such a situation some schools become magnet schools and their rolls swell to unmanageable proportions. Others become schools of last resort, the most ambitious of their local parents feel duty bound to send their children elsewhere and student and (subsequently) staff numbers drop to levels where a broad curriculum cannot be offered.
That is especially the case in Edinburgh. In Scotland 4% of children attend private schools, in the UK 7% but in Edinburgh, the 24% of the secondary school population are in the private sector. That massive proportion colours perceptions of schools.
If the influence of the private sector on the Edinburgh mind-set is to be broken, Edinburgh’s comprehensive system requires to comprise schools, not only roughly equal in terms of teachers, resources and buildings, but roughly equal also in the social composition of their intakes.
Three years is sufficient time to review catchments and to seek to renew Edinburgh’s secondary system. Schools should not be so large that their individual learners are known only to the teachers who teach them. Schools should not be so small that they barely have a high-achieving cohort nor so small that their unit costs drag down the remainder of the system.
The original decision by the previous Labour administration to review the school estate and reduce it was correct. The decision by the new administration to continue the process was correct but the decision to include the secondaries before the review was anywhere near complete was ill-judged. Last week’s decision, effectively to admit that error, was brave and right. Real courage is now required to initiate a radical review of catchment areas to create genuine, socially-mixed comprehensive schools which will serve all Edinburgh’s children whose parents choose to use them.
The above article was first published in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland on 7 March 2008.