Getting To Grips With Schools Shake Up

Musselburgh’s growth is throwing up some difficult decisions. None more so than the need to increase secondary school provision in the area.

The town has had a Grammar School since 1626 and the current building dates back to 1835. It has been extended and refurbished under a PPP scheme we’re paying handsomely for. But the Honest Toun continues to grow and the school’s capacity is expected to be surpassed in less than four years.

MGS

East Lothian Council is inviting responses to a consultation on a proposal to build an additional secondary school, at the eastern side of Wallyford, to the east of Musselburgh, creating two senior schools for the area. Note that we’re not being invited to discuss other options but rather comment on a proposal the council has already agreed. The consultation closes on Wednesday.

Last summer the council held what it calls a “pre-consultation” but this was a nonsense. I blogged at the time, warning that such a lopsided questionnaire should carry little weight. In the end only 261 people responded out of a population of 20,000 yet the council still refers to the results. This was the first indication that big changes to schooling in Musselburgh were coming down the track.

In recent weeks East Lothian councillors voted through the proposal for a new secondary school at Wallyford and only now is the community being consulted. It’s a messy situation but here we are, so let’s examine the issues.

Growth

The Strategic Development Plan for South East Scotland, approved by Scottish Ministers in 2013, requires East Lothian Council in its Local Development Plan (LDP) to identify land for 10,050 houses by 2024.

I’ve previously questioned the need for such growth. In my view the Local Development Plan is flawed. Yet this is what is informing the council’s rush to increase secondary school capacity. Taking into account pupils from new housing earmarked in the LDP, Musselburgh Grammar School (MGS) is projected to have a peak roll of 2,337. MGS has space for 1,350 and the projection is by 2020 that will be surpassed.

But where to build? The current MGS site is constrained and the council in its search for land have plumped for Wallyford. Among the early options were Levenhall Links and Fisherrow Links. Can you imagine the outcry if either of these were built on? Good grief. Thankfully they were excluded at the first hurdle.

Location of new secondary school

Intriguingly, the council noted that greenbelt farmland west of the former Edenhall Hospital was big enough for a new school but was dismissed due to lack of easy access, an ancient monument (?), and potential to “compromise the setting of Inveresk village.”

Also on the map of potential sites was greenbelt farmland at Goshen, earmarked for housing but later removed from the LDP following strong public pressure. I’m aware the developer who wants to build 1,000 houses at Goshen is appealing that decision but at a recent public meeting council officials insisted that the need for a new school is so acute that they simply can’t wait for that appeal to be resolved. So it seems whatever happens at Goshen won’t involve a secondary school.

Catchments

Another element of the council’s proposal that has caused me to furrow my brow is the way the catchments are being divided. In future, kids from Pinkie St Peter’s in Musselburgh would go to the new secondary along with those from Wallyford. At current school rolls, this is only around 600 pupils. By contrast MGS would have around 1,000, taking kids from Burgh, Campie, Stoneyhill and Whitecraig. Would folk in Whitecraig prefer to stick with MGS or go to the new school just along the road? And given that Burgh Primary is almost at capacity, which primary school will kids living in central Musselburgh be allocated to in future? If it’s Pinkie how will they feel about not attending MGS?

Musselburgh area school roles

So, for me, there are five main issues…

Firstly, the lack of consultation on the broader question. We are not being invited to hear from experts on the pros and cons of a junior and upper school model, nor on the option of a “superschool”. I’m more interested in the former as it’s always struck me as odd to have kids of 11 mixing with young adults of 17. An upper school might also give a better opportunity to connect with college and university education. I just don’t know and it looks like I’ll never know because it’s not an option on the table.

Secondly, the community is being bounced into a choice. The council should have been communicating and involving the community long before now. The rising roll at MGS has not suddenly been sprung on them!

Thirdly, catchment changes. I can imagine parents from Pinkie will be worried about the trek their kids will face to get over to the eastern edge of Wallyford, but the flip side of that is kids currently at Wallyford won’t have so far to travel in future. We need to make sure there are good walking and cycling links across busy roads and the railway line. I guess older kids may prefer to jump on the bus, and there are plenty of buses between Musselburgh and Wallyford.

Fourthly, community connections. How do we maintain a sense of community with two Musselburgh secondary schools? I think fears of “unfriendly rivalry” are overblown. These kids are going to separate schools for reasons of population and geography. For a time I went to school in Airdrie where there were fights between the town’s two secondary schools but this was due to religious differences and the prejudices that denominational schools can exacerbate. As long as the community of Musselburgh town continues to embrace its neighbours, Wallyford and Whitecraig, I fail to see why we will lose our connection. Given the constant threat of Musselburgh being subsumed as a surburb of Edinburgh, we retain a fierce independence as evidenced by the forthcoming Riding of the Marches, which doesn’t stop at Wallyford but goes right up to Fa’side Castle. It’s a’ oor ain!

Finally, the state of MGS. If a new school is built at Wallyford, will the Grammar be left to wither on the vine? At the recent public meeting this concern was brushed aside by a senior council official who didn’t seem to think school buildings had much impact on the learning environment. Clearly the condition of your surroundings does have an impact and I’ll be seeking assurances from East Lothian Council that MGS will get the maintenance and upgrades it deserves.

What happens next? Well, the council will review its proposal having taken on board evidence from experts at Education Scotland. The council’s decision is final. As the proposal does not concern a school closure, the council doesn’t need to involve Scottish Ministers.

So, I’ve stuck my tuppenceworth into the consultation. I suggest you do too.

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