Fire-school pupils return to classes amid warnings over lack of places

Pressure is mounting on the Scottish Government and Fife Council to find a lasting solution for children at a fire-ravaged secondary school, amid warnings the incident demonstrates the need for an “urgent” solution to long-standing capacity problems in the area’s secondary school estate.

A teenage boy was charged after more than 80 firefighters worked overnight battling a "suspicious" blaze at a high school in Fife.

Woodmill High School in Dunfermline was extensively damaged in last week’s blaze, with no guarantees its pupils will be able to return to the building in the long term.

With numerous secondary schools in the area close to full, Fife Council has spent the last week devising interim arrangements to allow Woodmill’s near 1,400 pupils to resume their studies.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Starting tomorrow, the pupils, banded in their year groups, will be dispersed across four secondary schools, one primary school, Fife College and a nearby conference centre.

While the authority’s response has been praised, there is concern over where current and future Woodmill pupils will be permanently based.

Fife Council has allocated £50 million towards a secondary school replacement and refurbishment plan, but that budget covers not just a proposed £90m joint campus – which would host a new Woodmill High, St Columba’s High and Fife College – but four other schools.

Douglas Chapman, the SNP MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, told Scotland on Sunday he had been in touch with education secretary John Swinney, who told him “he was prepared to accelerate the process for the learning campus in Dunfermline”.

Chapman added: “I’m hoping he will be as good as his word on that. What that means in reality, we need to wait and see, but I will certainly be maintaining pressure on the government and on the council.

“I don’t think that temporary arrangements are sustainable. We need to think about a longer-term solution. It was a matter of concern before, but now it’s a matter of absolute urgency.”

The Scottish Government said it hopes to make an announcement “soon” about “replacement accommodation” for Woodmill, but Kathleen Leslie, a Tory councillor who was a teacher at Woodmill’s department of additional support, which suffered the worst damage in the fire, sounded a cautious note. She said: “I’ve asked about five times for minutes of the council’s discussions with the government about the new supercampus, but I’ve been told no minutes are available.”

Shirley-Anne Somerville, the SNP MSP for Dunfermline, said she had been “reassured” the government will respond quickly to “do what it can to be able to help the community get back on track”, adding that the council was “paying the price” for the decision of previous administrations not to seek developer contributions from housebuilders for schools.

A rapid expansion of Dunfermline’s footprint, fuelled by housing attractive to Edinburgh commuters, has seen more than 8,000 homes built in its eastern swaths over the past 15 years. The council estimates up to 11 new primary schools will be required by 2030, along with at least 1,100 additional pupil places in secondaries across Dunfermline and west Fife.

As recently as March, Shelagh McLean, the council’s head of education, warned that “current projections show a significant growth” in pupil numbers at Woodmill.

The school roll currently stands at 1,390 pupils against an overall capacity of 1,445, giving it an occupancy level of 96 per cent. It is one of seven secondaries in the area with an occupancy rate of 90 per cent or above. One school, Balwearie High in Kirkcaldy, is at 99 per cent.

It is not just the capacity of the school estate that presents a problem, but its condition. Woodmill, which opened in 1958, is one of six Fife secondaries rated category C, or “bad”. Even before the fire, its backlog and future maintenance liability stood at £24m.

Parent Andrew Boyle, whose daughter is an S2 pupil at Woodmill, said: “A fire like this is not predictable, but Woodmill is a building dating back to the 1950s in poor condition. It could easily have been asbestos or problems with the plumbing that led to its closure. It feels to me like people have been crossing their fingers and keeping their eyes closed.”

Carrie Lindsay, the council’s executive director for education, said schools in west Fife and neighbouring councils had been “amazing” in their offers of support.

She added: “Longer term we are considering all options for secondary schooling across the area and discussions are ongoing with the Scottish Government and Fife College about the possibility of a learning community campus.

“We hope that there will be an announcement from the government on funding available to local authorities in the near future.”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said it “stands ready” to offer support and minimise disruption to pupils.

She added: “Even before this incident we had already been in discussion with Fife Council regarding plans for replacement accommodation for Woodmill. We have accelerated these discussions and hope to make an announcement soon.”