Freeing up money to invest in education

WHEN a new administration takes over the running of a council, it is faced with many immediate and difficult issues.

In the education, children and families department there are several pressing factors that mean a responsible administration has to take a long, hard look at the effectiveness of our current provision. Over the last ten years the child population in Edinburgh has fallen by 18 per cent, and this has resulted in a significant reduction in school rolls. A number of our schools are now operating at under 60 per cent occupancy. This is the level set by the independent Accounts Commission as the benchmark for review. Children are therefore rattling round in half-empty schools that have deteriorated to such an extent that some are not fit for purpose. This is not the best educational experience we can give them - pupils and staff deserve better and we would be letting down a whole generation for whom their school experience would be less than ideal. In addition, any under-used accommodation does not represent good value for money.

The grant we get from the Scottish Executive is dependent on the school population, so we are getting less money, and up until now have struggled to keep the same number of buildings and staff. Although there is a mismatch between supply and demand, it is not uniform across the city, and areas such as the Waterfront and Craigmillar have the opportunity for new schools.

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The new director of education, children and families and myself have looked at the whole of our estates - nursery, primary, secondary and community learning and development, looking for ways to make better use of our buildings and free up money to be reinvested in the service.

Closing schools is never an easy or pleasant process - that is presumably why the previous administration, although making preparations for a similar exercise, drew back from the whole process.

The new Lib Dem/SNP administration has not shied away from these difficult decisions and has drawn up clear criteria on which to base our proposals.

The main criteria for any proposal for closure is: will there be a clear educational advantage resulting from the proposal? We will not close a school or centre for purely financial reasons and I am pleased that an assurance has been given from the director and convener of finance that all money emanating from this programme will be ring-fenced for education, children and families.

We do not claim to have a monopoly of wisdom on this issue and I am committed to the consultation period being meaningful and genuine. If communities come up with better proposals, then we will consider them and amend our own. I want to have a dialogue with parents, staff and students as to how we provide the best learning and teaching environment, within our current reviews. I have therefore extended the consultation period, and put in extra public meetings. Consultation on the proposals will be spread throughout the year, and managed in tranches, rather than all at once. We hope to make it as easy as possible for people to contribute, accepting comments in writing and by e-mail, as well as having the public meetings.

Copies of consultation papers will be sent to parents and key stakeholders and will also be available online and in community venues such as libraries.

We have come forward with new guidance for deputations, in order to ensure that all representations will be heard in an environment conducive to listening and questioning. I am genuinely interested in people's views on our proposals. After considering all the points raised during the consultation period a report will then go to council with recommendations from the children and families department.

Officers have worked very hard to build on those schools where parents are at present seeking to send their children, as much as possible going with the flow of parental choice rather than against it. Claims that we are involved in "social engineering" are simply not true and schools which met our criteria are being considered regardless of their location. I do recognise, however, that people build up strong bonds of attachment with their local schools, nurseries and community centres and that any closures are not immediately welcomed.

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I do believe nonetheless that this property rationalisation is a good move educationally, enabling the authority to widen the curriculum in the schools, increasing the number of children attending new and refurbished schools and freeing up money to reinvest in education, children and families. We aim to provide a first-rate, integrated children and families service for the 21st century and I very much hope that parents, staff and communities will look at the proposals with open minds, engage in a constructive dialogue with us and in the end help us to deliver the best possible service for all.

• Councillor Marilyne MacLaren is the city's education, children and families leader

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