Leaders: Lessons must be learned from school building fiasco

Picture: TSPL
Picture: TSPL
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Urgent action for affected pupils is needed and a full review into the substandard building work and PPP contracts should follow

Searching questions are now due over the safety of Scotland’s school buildings following the sudden closure in Edinburgh at the weekend of 17 schools and a community centre.

The closures have been ordered on safety grounds, with attendant fears that other schools built under the same private finance contract could pose a safety risk to children and staff. An emergency meeting of the Scottish government’s resilience committee was held on Saturday.

The suddenness of the closures, and the concerns being raised over many other school buildings completed under similar public-private partnership (PPP) contracts, threatens mayhem for some 9,000 pupils, together with parents and teachers scrambling to make alternative arrangements. Pupils are due back from their Easter break with many required to sit exams before the end of the month.

The crisis reopens fierce controversy, both over the standard of work under PPP projects and the ongoing repair and maintenance contracts which many local authorities found burdensome. PPP was discontinued after the Holyrood administration brought in the not-for-profit Scottish Futures Trust in 2008.

Structural problems came to light after school buildings in Edinburgh were hit by the severe storms over the course of the winter. Subsequent inspections has brought construction failures and shortcomings to light. Edinburgh Schools Partnership, which operates the buildings, says the standard of construction carried out by the building contractor “is completely unacceptable and we are now undertaking full structural surveys to determine whether this issue is more widespread.” It has accepted financial responsibility and apologised to parents and pupils for the uncertainty and inconvenience caused.

Urgent action is now needed on several fronts. The first is to secure alternative arrangements for the pupils affected. The second is to assess whether other schools built under PPP are similarly at risk. The third is to ensure remedial work is undertaken urgently and to the highest standard. And fourth, a thorough enquiry is now vital, both to ensure that the contractors fulfil their maintenance obligations and strengthen buildings to minimise recurrence of poor construction.

Councils have complained for years that PPP contracts had become a “major drain” on education budgets, while the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland has said the deals were a “dripping roast” for contractors.

Among questions the Scottish government needs to examine are how these affected schools were given a building certificate on sign-off; whether the inspection was of sufficient rigour; whether maintenance contracts should now be re-negotiated and what additional improvements may be necessary in the way public building contracts are procured.

These buildings were completed ten years ago before the onset of the financial crisis, but today, with school budgets and local authorities under intense pressure, securing value for money and buildings finished to the highest standard is a compelling priority.

No return after tax details disclosure

Whatever else the furore over Prime Minister David Cameron’s tax affairs has brought about, the publication of politicians’ tax returns looks to have become a standard requirement for public office.

Over the weekend Scotland’s political leaders – First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP, Kezia Dugdale for Labour, Ruth Davidson for the Scottish Conservatives and Willie Rennie for the Liberal Democrats – all rushed to publish their tax returns.

It barely matters now that the UK prime minister committed no tax misdemeanour.

But his handling of the issue has been badly misjudged. It has further deepened public distrust of politicians, exposed him to the charge of hypocrisy and reinforced the sense of a political elite out of touch with voters.

The problem now is having set this hare running, every new disclosure to “draw a line” under the affair brings a fresh crop of questions. What of the wider financial interests of his late father? What was the source of disbursements received from his mother?

And disclosure of a political leader’s tax return, at Westminster or Holyrood, may not end there. What of senior Cabinet ministers such as Chancellor George Osborne? Should disclosure not extend to senior civil servants and those appointed to head quangos? What of the financial arrangements of their wider families? Scotland’s politicians may have acted in the cause of transparency. But once one political figure has disclosed, it is well-nigh impossible for others not to follow.

Some fear the longer term effects of forcing individuals in the public realm to expose their financial affairs in this way. But by then the public may have tired of this p60 cascade.