In their first week back after the summer holidays, 22 Edinburgh schools were faced with the threat of closure. This amounts to one in six schools, and the greatest impact is on some of the poorest parts of the city.
The blow has been delivered by the newly elected council, run by a coalition of LibDem and Scottish Nationalist councillors – though there is some evidence that is was already being planned under the previous Labour administration.
Labour councillors are now opposing it, and it was only passed at a full Council meeting of 23 August on the casting vote of the Lord Provost, a Lib Dem councillor.
Parents began organising immediately There were well attended meetings in many schools within days, and a week later many groups of parents and pupils were outside the city chambers protesting alongside members of the Unison union, who had declared a strike day against other cuts and job losses.
Parent groups from the six nurseries are working together, a website has been set up to support the whole campaign, and a coalition is being built to include the 13 primary and three high schools alongside the nurseries.
This is despite the council’s attempt to gag its own employees and prevent teachers and other staff from speaking at parents’ meetings.
The proposals are driven by a budget deficit, though the council report tries to argue educational benefits. Parents are determined to get their message across to councillors, who don’t seem to understand the consequences of these closures.
Nursery school closures will reduce full time places, already too few, including those places designed for children with serious problems and needs. Nurseries now run by teachers will be replaced by 'integrated children’s centres' with no qualified teachers.
Primary schools have been selected for closure on the basis of 'spare capacity'. This takes no account of the plan by the new SNP government to reduce class sizes to 18 in the first three years of primary school. If these schools are closed and pupils sent to neighbouring schools with 'spare capacity', classes will have to stay at 30 or 33.
So SNP councillors in Edinburgh would be making it impossible for their SNP colleagues in government to reduce class size in the capital city.
All three high schools are community schools, providing a wide range of facilities as well as secondary education. Two of the three, Castlebrae and the Wester Hailes Education Centre are on poor council estates, and their closure will undermine the regeneration of these areas.
The other, a city centre school, draws pupils from across the city. It has a fine reputation among ethnic minority parents, and many of its pupils attend because of difficulties experienced at large schools. These schools have shown that a school of 500, and in one case 300, may not have as many course choices, but they extend educational opportunities in many other ways, develop strong links with parents and the community, and provide a supportive and caring ethos.
The schools are successful and improving, despite the council’s argument that small schools are unviable. The plan is to send their students into larger schools serving troubled housing schemes, some of which are already struggling, and which will then have a huge concentration of pupils living in poverty and deprivation.
Needless to say the council’s senior officers claim that 'research' shows larger schools are better – that is primary schools should all have 400 pupils or more, and secondary schools 1,000. There is no such research on primary schools.
For secondary schools, the only calculations in Britain show only marginal difference between schools of different size, and the more extensive research in the US shows advantages for small schools. Lower class size, close links with the community and sufficient support for pupils with particular needs are the factors that really matter.
Parents in many parts of the city are worried about the distance they will have to walk children to school. Secondary pupils are worried about rivalries between different council estates, and many will end up dropping out of school. The closures also mean more parents driving their children to school, adding to congestion and environmental damage.
The nurseries campaign website: » www.saveournurseries.org.uk
Terry Wrigley's book, Another School is Possible, is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, » www.bookmarks.uk.com