Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hauled Up By The Rector

The town I now call home has been in the news a bit of late. Ellon, or more accurately, the state of repair of its Academy, seems to have attracted the attentions of none other than Iain Gray, Leader of the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament, or if you prefer, ‘Leader of the largest parliamentary group not represented in the Scottish Government’, to give him his Sunday title.

There are a few issues on which Labour likes to claim a monopoly of concern, of which perhaps the most trumpeted yet least justified is education. In particular, during their time in office together with the Lib Dems, the number of schools being either built or refurbished became the statistic of choice to demonstrate just how much more they cared about Scotland's future than did anyone else.

A school which started life under a Labour led administration is a ‘Labour School’. Not an ordinary, common or garden ‘school’. Not even a ‘Labour/Lib Dem school’, but a ‘Labour School'. This delusional annexation of the public good for sectional interest has even led the party to claim that not a single school project has been initiated by the SNP since taking office.

In fact, something like £1bn of school projects have commenced since the SNP took power. Some, yes, will have had their genesis prior to the election, but the fact remains that just as new schemes are progressing, the monies to build those signed off by Labour are being found under the present administration. Much of this is financed through the conventional capital allowances of [shock, horror!] local authorities – in other words, the way we used to build schools before the false God of PPP/PFI came along to bamboozle the credulous and enrich the unscrupulous.

Although PPP was never ruled out by the Scottish Government as a means of financing projects, the fact that the liabilities are due to come back on balance sheet has removed any advantage which the initiative might ever have brought. The cost of capital under PPP was always excessive, and with the Westminster government now having to offer to bail out PPP projects thanks to the drying up of the capital markets, it’s pretty clear that as a funding mechanism, it’s dead in the present climate.

Anyway, to our tale. The present main building at Ellon Academy opened in 1979. It was cobbled together by the then Grampian Region based on what was an existing design for (I think) Dyce Academy, in order to meet the needs of what was, thanks to the oil boom, a rapidly expanding town.

The big problem was that it wasn’t only Ellon which was beginning to fill up with new houses and young families. The same was true of a swathe of East Aberdeenshire and it wasn’t long before the Academy had the highest school roll in Scotland, serving 22 ‘feeder’ primaries. This put a great deal of pressure on the building and temporary accommodation had to be provided for pupils – a situation which lasted until the new Meldrum Academy was opened, which allowed for numbers to ease somewhat in Ellon.

The nature of the school building and the heavy use to which it has been put over that time means it’s now nearing the end of its useful life. The signs of wear and tear are obvious as you walk around. Given the difficulties of refurbishment while the school is in use and the dubious value in any case of refurbishing the 1970’s main building, the need for a new school on a new site is obvious.

Aberdeenshire Council has now brought forward detailed proposals for a new Academy. Some £3m has been set aside for initial architectural works, and the new building, together with replacements for Kemnay Academy and Means Academy in Laurencekirk, will be funded out of the council’s capital budget.

From this, I hope I’ve been able to make it clear that although the present state of the Academy buildings is one which has built up over a considerable period of time, the wheels are now in motion for a new school to be built. Which makes it all the more surprising that Iain Gray should have chosen to use the school as a political football at FMQs recently.

After admitting that he didn’t know very much about Ellon, Gray chose to lambast the state of the school buildings, in a crude attempt to taint the Government in the constituency of the First Minister. There was, he told Parliament, a ‘plan to refurbish Ellon Academy under the previous Executive’.

This came as news to one Ellon resident – past Rector of the Academy, one-time Councillor and former member of the Education Committee, Alan Cameron. He wrote to Mr Gray last week, pointing out that not only were his claims that there were plans to refurbish the Academy under the previous administration completely untrue, but that it was only under the SNP government that any monies had been allocated towards replacing the school:

Dear Mr Gray

I note last week during First Minister’s Questions that when making comments about
Ellon Academy you claimed “a new school would have been built under the plans of the previous Labour-led Executive.”

This is completely untrue.

As you may be aware I served as Headteacher of
Ellon Academy between the years 1981 and 1996. I also served on the Education Committee of Aberdeenshire Council between 1999 and 2007 and am well aware of the need for a replacement school building.

I was extremely disappointed that Ellon Academy was not included in the Outline Business Case submitted to the Scottish Executive in December 2001.

In 2004/5 the school appeared on Aberdeenshire Council’s own list of 24 potential school projects they viewed as a priority. However, no funding was attached to this list and it is simply not credible to claim that “a new school would have been built”. In fact it was never on any Scottish Executive programme.

Indeed it is only under the SNP in Government that progress has been made. Aberdeenshire Council have confirmed that the first time any funds have been made available for the Ellon project is this year and they have identified £3.3million within their current Capital Plan for preparatory architectural works and site acquisition.

I’m sure you never knowingly misled Parliament and think it appropriate that you issue a public apology as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely

Alan Cameron

Gray decided to visit the Academy last Friday, and responded to Mr Cameron by repeating his fallacious claim that the Government hadn’t commissioned a single school since coming to office. However, although the present lack of a new building was the fault of the SNP, the fact that a new Academy hadn’t been built under eight years of Lib/Lab government was because “it was up to councils to prioritise and make up the programme which schools got built”.

Aha - so by Gray’s own admission, it was the council’s fault between 1999 and 2007 rather than the Lib/Lab government, but became the SNP Government’s fault instantly thereafter! But it gets better still, when Gray claimed that “if Labour was still in office there would have still been a programme with a level playing field and real progress could have been made building a new Ellon Academy.

So, in the space of a week, Gray has gone from saying there ‘would’ have been a new academy, to saying only that there ‘could’ have been a new academy – which as we all know there’s now going to be anyway. Which leaves us where, exactly?

Well, Ellon will in due course get a building which matches the ambitions of the pupils and teachers inside it, and not before time. However, it’s no thanks to Iain Gray, either in Government or in opposition. For him, this issue was never about Ellon Academy or the well being of the staff or the pupils - it was always about trying to score debating points against Alex Salmond at FMQs. In the end, he couldn’t even manage to do that bit right.

I've long suspected from his performances at First Minister's Questions that Gray is receiving some very poor advice from his backroom staff. Having made a complete fool of himself and likely very few friends on his daytrip, I suspect it’s the last that either Ellon or its Academy will be seeing of Mr Gray for quite some time.


Key bored warrior. said...

Excellent work Richard. Elmer Fudd strikes again. I do hope he mentions it again on FMQs but somehow I think as you say he will attempt to bury it, covering it with their latest non story which Brankin declared was "criminal," when being interviewed for the umpteenth time on the loss of 1000 teaching posts.

What a pity that something as important as our kids eductation is booted around the political landscape like this.

Anonymous said...

I've long suspected from his performances at First Minister's Questions that Gray is receiving some very poor advice from his backroom staff."

Does that surprise you Richard??

The very name "Scottish labour" is surely synonmous with tags like incompetence, pigs in trough, tenth rate, unprofessional, quislings, care for none but themselves, EVERYTHING one detests about your fellow man!

Whenever I listen to or hear the liebourites and SEE them at Holyrood I refelect in utter horror that I was born in the same country as these sub-humans and am aghast that they are of the same species as myself!

subrosa said...

Good post Richard. I'll put it on my Super Seven list for Saturday and hope that it will get a wider circulation because it certainly deserves it.

Richard Thomson said...

Anon - no, it doesn't surprise me, but your language does seem unlikely to convert.

We've got a great story to tell here - let's not sully it with intemperance.



Anonymous said...

We've got a great story to tell here - let's not sully it with intemperance."

Really Richard?

YOU of all people SHOULD know that the gloves have been off for a very long time when it comes to the liebourites attacking the SNP!

Your implicit approach will not see us very far down the road to liberty when up against the might of the British State!

Surely YOU recognise this simple fact??

Richard Thomson said...

YOU of all people SHOULD know that the gloves have been off for a very long time when it comes to the liebourites attacking the SNP!

Indeed - and I'm not slow to point out their worst excesses when they do. But all responding in kind does is alienate people and play into the hands of opponents. It strengthens something all right, but not us.

I'd have thought my approach was very explicit - treat your opponents with as much respect as you can while trying to win over the undecideds on your own terms. Slanging matches just switch people off from your cause and make your chances of success less likely.

Margo MacDonald used to say it very well - you'll catch far more flies with honey than you ever will with vinegar.

brownlie said...

Must agree with you, Richard, that any attacks no matter how provocative should be responded to in a well-balanced manner otherwise any coherent and persuasive points made are lost and only the vitriol is noted.