Leader comment: Schools crisis a litany of failure and complacency

The  collapsed wall at Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh.
The collapsed wall at Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh.
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It is been more than a year since Edinburgh’s school estate was plunged into crisis after nine tonnes of masonry fell at Oxgangs Primary during a storm.

What many might have assumed to be a freak accident at the hands of nature was anything but. Concerns over the standards of construction across the city’s schools led to the closure of ten primaries, five secondaries, and two additional support needs schools.

As a result, more than 7,500 children and their families were affected, with many pupils forced to relocate to temporary accommodation for the rest of the term.

READ MORE: Edinburgh school closures: ‘Luck’ that no children were killed

It was an upheaval for the families concerned, but in hindsight, we should perhaps be grateful that the grave building problems did not result in multiple fatalities.

An independent report into the catalogue of safety failures that forced the 17 schools to close makes for alarming – and infuriating – reading.

John Cole, an experienced architect from Northern Ireland, has produced a thorough investigation into the shambolic structures – all of which were built or refurbished under the same public private partnership scheme – with many of its findings proving particularly striking.

Few, however, are as chilling as one warning in the 250-page report. “The fact that no injuries or fatalities to children resulted from the collapse of the gable wall at Oxgangs School was a matter of timing and luck,” Mr Cole writes at one point. “Approximately nine tonnes of masonry fell on an area where children could easily have been standing or passing through. One does not require much imagination to think of what the consequences might have been if it had happened an hour or so later.”

While we should be thankful that such a ­terrible tragedy did not arise, we should remain aghast at the fact the threat was allowed to rear its head in the first place.

Mr Cole’s report makes clear that there was a lack of rigorous scrutiny of the construction work. He raises a series of failings in his review, including supervision of bricklaying and the positioning of wall ties, and the quality assurance processes used by the main contractor and the sub-contractor to establish the quality of the construction of the walls.

Such appaling oversights are key to the whole sorry saga. How can it be that in this day and age such a vast, expensive and important building project was allowed to go ahead when no one in the companies, the partnership, or the local authority thought to check the work being carried out was safe?

There has been a great deal of criticism of the PPP1 project, but let us be clear: Mr Cole’s comprehensive report does not find a fault with the funding model. It is shoddy building standards that were to blame, an unforgivable situation in the 21st century and especially in a city renowned for its built heritage.

Andrew Kerr, chief executive of the City of Edinburgh Council, has vowed to learn lessons from the episode, but other councils, and indeed the construction industry, must follow suit.