Skip to main content

Edinburgh’s proposals to close 22 schools, three of them secondaries, has collapsed almost as quickly as it arose.
The SNP, group on the City Council, coalition partners with the Liberals, announced that it was withdrawing all support from the Council’s agreed programme to close schools only ten days after the programme was first unveiled.  Campaigners against school closures are jubilant although, at this stage, it remains unclear, what will be the exact consequences.
The Council has a £14 million deficit to cover.  The higher unit costs of schools which are relatively under-populated are a drain on educational spending across the board.  It is almost universally acknowledged that some review was and remains essential.
At the moment however, it is not even certain whether the present coalition will continue.  Steve Cardownie, leader of the SNP group and depute leader of the Council wants the coalition to continue but the review ‘back to the drawing board’.
Mariilyne MacLaren, the Liberal Chairwoman of the Education, Children and Families Committee, attacked the SNP’s actions, calling it a ‘tragic day for education in Edinburgh’.
Although originally established by the city’s former Labour administration, Labour politicians have roundly attacked the review.  Conservatives have supported the maintenance of schools in their own areas but the Conservative group has reaffirmed its view that parental choice should be the prime determinant of whether or not schools remain open.
The review itself was originally designed to tackle the issue of surplus places in primary schools.  As late as15th May, secondary headteachers were told that while a review of primary schools would be published early in the new term, a separate review of secondaries would follow later.  By late June, a decision had been taken to include the secondary sector.  This hurried change of plan nonetheless  led to one imaginative proposal.
For five years the City had vainly sought a site on which to rebuild the crumbling but prestigious Boroughmuir High School, a school presently occupying a highly valuable city centre site.  It is understood that the option identified was to close the city centre Roman Catholic school, St Thomas of Aquin’s High School, redirect its pupils to the city’s two other denominational schools and utilise its (recently modernised) building either to resolve the Boroughmuir issue.
This financially prudent proposal would have raised a significant capital receipt for the Council from the disposal of the Boroughmuir site.
At the same time, Castlebrae Community High School, the city’s smallest secondary and about to be rebuilt for nil cost by the Craigmillar Regeneration Partnership, was not on the list for closure since its physical renewal was a gift to the Council.
By the end of the summer the plans had been drastically altered.  For whatever reason, St Thomas’s was out of the equation, Castlebrae was in.  The three secondaries headlined for closure were all community schools, Drummond Community High School in the city centre, a beacon of good practice in equalities work, with a long history of superb engagement with the city’s ethnic minorities, and Castlebrae Community High School and Wester Hailes Education Centre (my school), both community schools serving peripheral areas of multiple deprivation.
Castlebrae and Wester Hailes have both, for the last year, been part of an innovative regeneration programme, the 20:20 Project, substantially funded by Scotland’s richest businessman, Sir Tom Hunter.  It appears that the Council made no contacts with Hunter prior to publishing the review.  Hunter has stated that he was “taken aback” by the closure plans.
He said, “My only question is what happened in six months from when these were schools that needed investment to these being schools that were going to be closed.  I welcome that it is going to be looked at a bit closer.”
The closure and subsequent reorganisation was stated as being to promote the development of ‘campus schools’ on which would be developed the integrated delivery of services.
All three secondaries proposed for closure were community schools with long records of integrated services and Wester Hailes, Scotland’s first purpose built community school, delivers, under a unified management structure, major community recreation facilities, adult classes, a crèche, the Young Mums Unit for the city and many other services.  The city appeared to be closing the best developed models it had for the form of school which it claimed to want to develop.
Edinburgh University academics have also criticised the council’s reliance on National Foundation for Educational Research (NfER) suggestions that the optimum size for secondary schools is 900 to 1,100.  The council has accepted this despite a raft of contrary research suggesting that smaller schools can be equally effective.
Moreover, although the council is keen to use the NfER minimum figure to justify closing smaller schools, it was proposing no action to tackle the several city secondaries with numbers well above the NfER’s proposed maximum.
Community activists in Craigmillar and Wester Hailes are posing searching questions about why their schools were particular targets.  Although they are among the city’s smaller schools, there is a local resentment that these communities were perceived to be the least likely to mount effective campaigns against closure.
In a city where 24 per cent of secondary school students are in the private sector (compared to seven per cent in England and four per cent in Scotland as a whole), and with a highly visible status ladder of schools, parental choice operates far more powerfully than elsewhere in Scotland.
As a result of parental choice operating in the very poorest areas, considerable numbers of the more ambitious and educationally aware parents, remove their children from the local school to neighbouring, more affluent schools.
Concern was expressed in Castlebrae and Wester Hailes that if they were closed and the decant of their pupils occurred, the schools into which they moved would soon become the schools-of-last-choice for many parents and the same problems which today face Castlebrae and Wester Hailes would quickly re-emerge in the schools to which the pupils had been moved.
A contrary nervousness has however been expressed in several of the city’s more prestigious comprehensives where there is a fear of “losing pupils to the private sector” if their social class mix is altered by any redrawing of catchment areas which would reduce their middle class composition.
Yet many are certain that only a dramatic redrawing of catchment areas to create socially mixed comprehensive schools can end the drift within the comprehensive system.
The concern now is that although the review has been withdrawn, the publicity will continue to hang like a pall over the named schools.  Parents, losing confidence in the long-term future of these schools, will transfer their children elsewhere, creating the intended results of the Review but by a slower and more painful process.
The Council requires to get its school estate in order but to do so in a manner which does not create further social division in a traditionally divided city.  At least one leading Labour councillor has speculated on the creation of council ‘coalition of all the talents’.
If comprehensive education in the country’s capital is to be saved the political parties committed to its maintenance may indeed be obliged to put aside their differences and reach an agreement which could provide stable, socially-mixed schools with long-term futures.

The above article was first published in SecEd on 13 September 2007.

Leave a Reply