Pupils in our city deserve the best

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MORE years ago than I care to think about, I wrote in a bout of youthful zeal in my school magazine how appalling it was that the teacher strikes of the early 80s had resulted in the end of extra-curricular activities.

But those were obviously heady times when there was little to complain about but a lack of school sports teams. Nowadays the pupils at James Gillespie's would be struggling to choose which issue to voice their concerns about – crumbling buildings or the lack of textbooks.

It's hardly believable that in the 21st century we have schools in Edinburgh on the verge of being unable to provide the most rudimentary of teaching materials to staff and pupils, but that is what's happening at the Marchmont school and no doubt others throughout the city.

It cannot be alone in seeing the tiny pot of cash it has left to spend after staff costs (which take up 90 per cent of its budget given the high number of pupils) dwindle by 1.5 per cent – or 64,000. The fact that it also has to pay for some repairs to keep its buildings wind and water-tight from the same budget makes it slightly worse off than newer, more modern, schools.

And it is, of course, still caught in the middle of a who's to blame game, as the council's "wave three" programme of school rebuilds and refurbishments remains unfunded and up in the air.

In the main, though, the problem at Gillespie's is just another result of the financial mess that the council's education system is in thanks to poor decision-making by – mostly previous – senior officials and councillors. This has left the department, as one former employee delightfully described it to me, "in deep s**t".

Savings which were supposed to be made by merging the education and social work departments have not materialised and the end result is an unwieldy and money-hungry children and families department. It is as far removed from the Liberal Democrat ideal of smaller, more efficient government as is possible to get.

No doubt director Gillian Tee is doing her best to grapple with such a mammoth and varied department as well as dealing with the outbursts of her political master, Marilyne MacLaren. But the fact is that trying to deal with such mammoth budgetary problems is now affecting basic services in schools. Never mind being able to give children decent meals, they can't even feed their minds.

The next step will be that schools will be forced to reduce staff costs in order to pay for resources. Indeed, parents of Gillespie's pupils have already said they fear the school will be left with no option but to fill principal teacher posts with junior staff or reduce the number of teachers.

First to go though will be vital classroom assistants. After that senior teachers and even heads are likely to be back in classrooms. Ultimately this will mean less time to ensure that schools are being run properly.

It really is time that someone got a grip on what is happening with education in this city. Surely, if nothing else, the council has a duty to ensure that the children in its educational care have access to the basics – a classroom which doesn't leak and in which they can be taught the curriculum with the correct resources?

Or does that "smack of a selfish expectation to be catered for" as one teacher lambasted my school mag editorial back in the day? I think not. The pupils at Gillespie's and the city's other high schools deserve to be given the best education state taxes can buy. And if that's at the expense of the planning system running more slowly, litter not being picked up from the streets so often, or "corporate services" taking a hit and money being reallocated, then I'm all for it.

Fresh out of ideas

EWAN AITKEN is moving on to a better place . . . shame the Labour group he once led has decided not to.

It seems that rather than have an election to show the people of Edinburgh they are a listening political party, they have decided to shoot themselves in the foot.

It might well have been the case that Andrew Burns would win an internal election to become leader, but to have him appointed without anyone standing against him is political cowardice.

Burns is a clever, capable man who takes good care of his allotment. He can even do the odd U-turn when public opinion demands it, and is more than a match for Jenny Dawe.

But in the eyes of the public he is tainted by his time as transport leader. This was Labour's chance to take a fresh approach and put promote some new faces such as Ian Murray. He is an unknown entity but he could have brought something new to the table, and given that there's at least three years before the next election would well and truly have his feet under it by then.

Maybe he's been promised a major role not to stand against Burns. But from now on he'll be forever linked with Andrew Burns and known as the councillor who bottled it.

It's not a lot of bull

YOU learn something new every day. At the Royal Highland Showground on Tuesday I met farmer Anne MacPherson, who keeps Simmental cows, preparing for the show. Her beautiful beasts were called Vatra and Vivaldi. Odd names for cows I thought, until Anne put me right.

Apparently cattle are like cars – they have a registration letter every year to prove their age. I wonder what will inspire the farmers when they reach X.