Edinburgh schools earmarked for closure saved after SNP's U-turn

MORE than 20 schools and nurseries threatened with closure in Edinburgh have been given a stay of execution after SNP councillors made a dramatic U-turn.

Their Liberal Democrat coalition partners on Edinburgh City Council have now decided not to press ahead with the consultation on the closures.

It follows an announcement last month that 13 primary, three secondary schools and six nurseries could close. But pressure from furious parents and nationalist MSPs convinced the SNP group to change their stance on the issue. Without their support in a hung council, the Lib Dems were forced to drop the proposals.

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The SNP members said yesterday they wanted to go "back to the drawing board", and the threat to some of the capital's schools is removed until at least next year. However, the council still must find a way to plug a 9 million black hole in the budget and tackle the issue of falling roles.

Last night Marilyne MacLaren, the Lib Dem education convener, said she was disappointed with SNP's decision. She added: "This news is of considerable regret to me and my political peers. We embarked on this modernisation programme to ensure that we provide every child in Edinburgh with a first class education."

And she accused the other parties of reducing the issue to "political football", adding: "It is the future of children and young people that should be important here rather than scoring political points."

When the plans were announced two weeks ago, the coalition had agreed closures were needed to save 9 million over three years and fill a budget black hole they blamed on the previous Labour administration. But it provoked anger among parents, with protest meetings held around the city.

The SNP increasingly realised the plan would not fit with the party's national policy to reduce class sizes. Group leader Steve Cardownie said: "There was disquiet and distrust about the process and we had to be prepared to listen to the public. We should go back to the drawing board."

He denied his group had come under pressure from nationalist MSPs, particularly Lothians member Kenny MacAskill, because the plans would force SNP education secretary Fiona Hyslop to intervene.

Mr Cardownie said: "Of course Kenny has asked about schools rationalisation - he would be a poor MSP if he didn't. But this was a decision made by the group. I can almost feel the relief among councillors that this has been taken off the table."

He said he hoped his group and the Lib Dems could continue to work in coalition. He added: "We do think that the people of this city want an SNP/Liberal Democrat coalition to work."

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Parents yesterday welcomed the news but said they would not stand their campaigns down until they were certain their schools were safe.

Tyrone Betts, chair of St Cuthbert's Catholic primary in Slateford, said: "I won't be celebrating until we are sure this is not all going to start again with a new set of proposed closures."

Stewart Muir, whose son goes to Bonnington Primary in Leith, which has the lowest occupancy in the city, was also wary. He said: "It is fantastic news, but I don't think Bonnington is going to be safe until enrolment increases."

Last night the Liberal Democrats held an emergency meeting to discuss the future of the coalition.

Jenny Dawe, leader of the Lib Dem group, said: "Yesterday, the SNP breached the coalition agreement.

"We will be investigating a number of ways of securing the positive future that we envisage for the city.

"If the SNP want to be a part of that then they have a lot of work to do to restore the trust that we previously had."

Relief for now, but there will surely be another schools hit list

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THE withdrawal of plans to close 22 schools across Edinburgh is likely to prove only a temporary reprieve for some schools.

Parents may be relieved, but few will be celebrating as they realise new proposals for closures will almost certainly be drawn up. Most accept the council's argument that falling rolls and half-empty schools mean that some must face closure.

The council still has a financial black hole to fill, with 9 million to save while funding schools filled with empty classrooms.

Since 1997 the number of Edinburgh primary pupils has fallen by 18 per cent, in line with falling birth rates, and the drop is expected to continue into secondary schools as the children age.

Bonnington Primary in Leith has the lowest occupancy in the city with just 116 pupils in a building designed for 415.

But proposing to close popular and nearly full schools such as Stockbridge, which has a waiting list for primary one, and Abbeyhill, which is at 91 per cent capacity, was inevitably going to spark fury and dissent. Falling schools rolls are causing similar closures across the UK but Edinburgh City Council's failed proposal provoked city-wide protests not seen elsewhere. Edinburgh parents will now be hoping their child's school does not appear on the next hit list.