Consultation process on Elgin school leaves too many questions

East End Primary - decision on its immediate future on Wednesday
East End Primary – decision on its immediate future on Wednesday

A DECISION ON the future building of new primary schools in Elgin is expected to be taken this week – amid fears that not all factors have been properly and correctly taken into account.

Concerned parents have also been contacting insideMoray over the weekend expressing their fears over the decision – including a belief that officials are acting as if the entire issue was a “done deal” well before Councillors meet to decide this week.

Months of consultation has produced controversy over the positioning of new school builds in Moray’s main town, with proposals in place to build one and possibly two new schools in the southern outskirts while there is also a proposal to build a new primary to the north.  Now members of the children and young people’s services committee will on Wednesday be asked to consider the outcome of a consultation process that has been mired in controversy, with parents of children attending East End Primary particularly vocal over the plans.

Under the proposals their school is to be effectively ‘split’ into two as a “temporary measure”, with new pupils taking up space that was until recently used as a Heritage Centre.  In addition one room not previously used by the Heritage Centre – and used by East End School pupils up until Easter this year – has now also been vacated to make way for a new office and reception for the temporary school.

Parents have also raised concerns over preparatory work being carried out on the Old School building at East End Primary from today – 48 hours ahead of any final decision actually being decided over the issue.

Reporting on the results of the recent consultation exercise, a statement published by Moray Council yesterday said: “Ninety-one per cent of responses were in favour of the proposal which could see the new school open in August in temporary accommodation next to East End Primary School.”

However, the 91% actually agreed the need for a new school – the percentage who agreed to the temporary use of East End Primary School and building of new school at Linkwood Road was 63%.

Recommending that councillors agree to go ahead with the East End School option, the report said: “Officers believe there is a very strong case to establish a new primary school, with nursery provision, to serve the agreed catchment area.

“The proposal has a number of potential educational benefits for current and future learners and will also assist the council in addressing capacity issues across its school estate in Elgin.”

Northern Option

What is still not clear is if Councillors will have the opportunity to take fully into consideration the alternative option presented to them in plans laid by Pitgaveny, who have a 1500-home masterplan on the table for the northern outskirts of Elgin.

Representatives acting for Pitgaveny wrote to Moray Council seeking a review of their plans for the East End Primary/Linkwood Road option, saying that they had already presented a “clear case for an alternative approach” for the whole of Elgin, which represented a financial saving to Moray Council and the taxpayer.

Their plans for Findrassie to the north includes a new primary school which, they say, would meet future requirements – while parents have also hotly disputed figures being produced by local authority officials to back up their claims over the future growth of required school places in the city.

Last night one concerned parent told insideMoray: “A question being asked by several parents is just why Seafield Primary School is not being used – according to recent figures published by the Council following refurbishment works, that school is only at a capacity of 58% with a functional 503 pupil capacity – in the school roll for the last year it had 290 pupils.”

In their letter to Moray Council, Pitgaveny’s land agents Savills said that the establishment of a new school in the north had already been discussed and agreed with education representatives at the local authority – but this was never acknowledged nor mentioned in proposals being made for the new primary school at Linkwood Road.

The content of the letter was not, either, made public, nor was it discussed as part of the consultation process for East End Primary/Linkwood Road – until a copy of the Savills letter was requested by the East End Primary School parent council under freedom of information legislation.

While the letter is now included in the consultation responses, given the important points it raises many parents are expressing surprise that a great deal more weight has not been given by council officials to its content, raising as it does some vital points over the methodology of calculating future requirements and an overall recommendation that such requirements are addressed by an Elgin-wide study of the future school estate rather than focussing on a single short-term development.

That was certainly a preferred option being cited by East End Primary parents, where they have noted that no new housing was being proposed within the Seafield catchment – while 1500 were being proposed for Findrassie and the south east, prompting questions on where the pupils will come from to fill the newly refurbished and expanded Seafield Primary school.

insideMoray was told: “Going by what I have seen of the Savills proposal, it seems to be a much more sensible and cheaper option.  I would also hope that Councillors sitting on Wednesday will see the money proposed to be spent on East End for the the new reception and Headteacher’s Office in Phase 2 of the work at East End Primary to be a waste – if it will not be needed after the temporary school moves out.

“Personally, I don’t see how the Council can go ahead with Phase 2 if the numbers are as low as they are appear to be.”

The report being considered on Wednesday says that if the recommendation of council officials are agreed, then establishing a new school from the start of the new session in August would require additional staffing.

In that event arrangements are already in place to have staff in post by next month. Transition programmes for children enrolling in primary 1 would begin in early June.

Editorial Comment

East End
Parents berated by Councillors over their opposition to ‘school sharing’ plan

MORAY COUNCIL lay great store in their public consultation processes, making a very large play of gathering information from the public over a wide range of issues.  

This is designed to inspire confidence in the decision-making process – but throughout my six years of reporting on local issues either for STV or insideMoray, it seems to me that far from inspiring confidence they all too often lead to cynicism and recrimination, as the perception of ‘fair play’ is lost to the point where many being consulted simply do not believe their view really counts.

The saga that has been the need for a new primary school in Elgin has typified this more than any other issue – perhaps greater, even, than the highly bitter and costly battle waged over the Western Link Road.

As a former teacher you would expect Forres councillor George Alexander to feel passionately on this subject, and he will argue on Wednesday that the temporary use of East End Primary ahead of a new school being built at Linkwood Road is the answer to Elgin’s primary education needs.  He will say that the case has been made, that there is a “desperate need” for this action to take place – he may even repeat his controversial claims that parents who do not agree with him simply failed to understand the issues.

However, the manner in which Councillor Alexander treated those parents in his now well known tirade against them, published through official council channels despite being very personal and dare I say political comments, did nothing to enhance the poor reputation the entire ‘consultation’ system enjoys.

Now parents have been contacting us almost as a last resort, the one final place their views can be aired in full and without fear of recrimination.  Yes, they believe there could be recrimination, they believe that far from their views being taken account of, giving them freely and openly just leads to accusations that they simply don’t understand the issues and, frankly, should just shut up and go away.

Reporting, as Moray Council did, that 91% are in favour of the East End Primary/Linkwood plan may have been a mistake, given that the percentage quoted was actually the number of consultees who agreed that a new school was required – and not, specifically, the option being touted.  Or it may have been just another deliberate and cynical ploy to give the public an impression that the vast majority are in full agreement with the action the council administration wish to take.

Having to be forced into revealing the views of a major developer not through openly publishing those views as part of the consultation process, but rather being forced to through Freedom of Information legislation, may also have been an oversight rather than officials being caught trying to brush some vital information under the carpet.

No matter the decision ultimately taken on Wednesday, this entire process has done nothing to enhance the alarmingly poor impression the public has of Moray Council’s ‘consultations’.