‘Fourteen into three won’t go’

'See that building over there?" My guide points down the road to a white monolith whose large windows dominate the surrounding landscape. "That's the social work department. And, see, if you were a battered wife going in there to seek help, your man could stand here and see you going in and out and in every one o' they rooms. You'd get the hiding of your life when you came out. It's like a lot of things in Easterhouse, it's not very well thought out."

Residents of this sprawling Glasgow housing scheme, one of the most deprived in Europe, have their reasons for being sceptical of grand visions intended to improve their lives. But, in the case of a primary school reorganisation that is to shut 10 schools and four nurseries in the area, replacing them with three "campuses", they are less sceptical than actively angry.

The project is part of a huge city-wide reorganisation, merging around 70 primaries and nurseries into 21 under-12 campuses – most of them new, to be designed and built by the council’s building services department.

From the other side of town, in the late Victorian grandeur that is the City Chambers, it looks like a no-brainer. The primary school roll has fallen from 110,000 in the 70s to 40,000, and is still falling by 2% a year, leaving many buildings half empty. This is mostly due to a falling birth rate, but partly to a general decanting of families and pupils into neighbouring authorities perceived as more successful. Part of an enormous rolling programme, phase IV, the biggest yet, is an attempt to reinvigorate the city’s under-12 provision.

Such radical action would be impossible in England, where legislation makes it harder to close schools. Even if it didn’t, few authorities have the clout that holding 70 out of 79 seats gives Glasgow’s ruling Labour group. Horse-trading is not required.

The council leader, Steven Purcell, says: “We have a historic opportunity to transform educational provision in the city of Glasgow. We are not taking a piecemeal approach. We are doing this wholesale.”

In some areas, communities are clearly in favour of new school campuses. In others, such as the West End, more than 800 objections were received about plans to close four schools, demolish a Victorian building and put up a new building. Purcell admits that refurbishment of two schools could cost the same, or less, than building one “super school”, but claims it would not deliver the same bang per buck in terms of facilities. Many objectors, he points out, were parents outside the catchment who won’t get in after the reorganisation.

Meanwhile, though, resistance is under way in the form of the Save Our Schools Campaign – families occupied three schools in Glasgow for a weekend recently, while parents in Easterhouse held a simultaneous event.

The occupation was led by a lively group of parents from Carnwadric primary in the city outskirts. They took in sleeping bags, a karaoke machine and snacks to occupy an unheated school gym. The plan is to close a 1930s redbrick building in need of maintenance, which has a parkside site in the centre of Carnwadric, and move the 230 pupils to a new-build school on a patch of wasteground overlooking the M77 in the shadow of rundown flats.

“We are going to keep protesting until someone from the education department comes to talk to us,” says Lynne Wright, who has a child at the school. “This is basically a solid building. It needs refurbishment, because it hasn’t been maintained for years. But it’s on a great site, near the shops, near the park. We think someone has their eye on this land. It is much more valuable than the site they want to build on.”

Pauline Gilgallon, another parent, says: “The consultation was a sham. This is a great school. Who wants their kids to go to school right next to a motorway?”

Opposition to change

Back at the City Chambers, Purcell is sanguine. “We have had opposition at every stage. People are very reluctant to accept change. But our experience is that when the new schools are up and running parents love them, as do pupils and teachers.”

Only one councillor opposed phase IV – Keith Baldassara of the Scottish Socialist party. “The council has ignored the consultation,” he says. He is particularly concerned about a school in Pollok, scheduled for closure. “St Edmund’s is doing better than schools in the same kind of economic area that are full. I would put that down to small class sizes. What is the average class size at Eton? I’ve heard eight to 10? There’s a reason for that. We should be using our resources to provide small classes in accessible schools and local solutions that are acceptable to local communities.”

The plans were waved through by the full council last month, each group of schools listed under a letter of the alphabet, most logging a solitary vote against. “You’re closing schools and you don’t even know where they are,” a protester shouted from the balcony.

Standing outside Blairtummock primary in Easterhouse, which looks rather like something the Stasi might have used as a potting shed, you wonder how many Glasgow councillors have ever visited it. It is quite hard to understand why the group of mothers who have been waiting to meet me are not calling for the council to raze it to the ground.

Small class sizes
“It may not look like much, but it’s a good wee school,” explains school board member Tracey Slaven. Her five-year-old son, Jack, who has speech and hearing impediments, started at the primary in a class of 19. Under the proposed merger, class sizes will rise to the maximum of 33. It appears that small class sizes are as dear to the mothers here as they are anywhere. Attempts to regenerate the area by knocking down housing and leaving bare grassland have decreased the density of its population and hence pupil numbers.

A couple of miles away, another group of anxious mothers is waiting to talk to me. I am, they say, not just the first journalist, but the first person, who has wanted to know what they think. Here, the closure of Provanhall primary means that more than 100 children’s probable route to school will take them over a four-lane road bridge above the M8 known as “suicide bridge”, past a stretch of wasteground where a woman was recently attacked, and into another potentially hostile district. Sharon Smith’s three-year-old, Keeia, is at the nursery in Provanhall, which is also to move to the new campus.

“It’s a long way to go with a toddler, and a lot of mums don’t like to walk by the waste ground. They just won’t have money for the bus.”

We pile on to the bridge and the children look out anxiously at the traffic below. In the next few minutes, several lorry drivers beep their horns underneath, whether in greeting, or alarm that the children might throw something down, it is not clear, but the noise lends itself to the general stress.

“I’ve never stood up for anything I believe in before,” says Shona Graham, a bright and articulate woman with a large extended family in the community. “But I am so appalled by this.”

Officials from the education department held a consultation meeting, but they brought security guards and ended the meeting when questioning got hostile, Graham says. “They told us, ‘we’ve been through this before and we know what’s best for you.'” Councillors refuse to meet them in groups of more than one. A march they held was ignored by the media, they tell me.

These women are not, in the main, politically engaged. “You could only object by letter. There are a lot of mums round here who aren’t confident with writing. We didn’t get any help. And that really hurt, because there’s plenty of help when they want us to put our crosses in the box on election day,” Graham says.

Despite the difficulties, more than 1,000 objections were lodged by letter and petition. But the women feel it has made little difference. They show me a central site that is empty. “A lot of the children have diabetes and asthma. Why not build the school in the centre, close to the health centre and the police station, the library and the sports centre? Why move them out to the edge of an industrial estate?” Graham asks.

At Easterhouse, the protesting families held a fundraising event for the hire of buses to Holyrood, where they plan to lobby the Scottish parliament petitions committee on April 19.

“We understand that education is expensive,” says Graham. “We know what money means. But we don’t want campuses. We can do without state-of the-art facilities. What we need is functional primary school buildings that are close to our communities. We are prepared to compromise but they won’t even talk to us.”

The Guardian
March 21st 2006