My father used the phrase “vague news” today when he really meant “fake news” — but it really got me thinking and, actually, vague news is something we’re getting a lot of in Lewis just now.
People were getting their knickers in a twist about the Lord’s Prayer being removed from daily practice at Stornoway Primary but, while they looked the other way, some news that was arguably of more importance to our young people’s lives was going unreported.
Back in the day, when I worked at the Stornoway Gazette, we always covered council meetings. They were often a little bit dull but it was seen as important because what happened in the council chambers should be a matter of public record. It was in the public interest.
I was in the council chambers last week for a meeting of the Education Committee meeting — I was interested as my children attend Stornoway Primary; one in primary three (Gaelic Medium) and one in the croileagan — and I couldn’t help but think about how much we are missing, today, the likes of Donnie Gazette and in a general sense a local print media that is adequately staffed.
A lot of what I think should be getting covered in the news isn’t being featured and right now we have a classic example of why this is a problem.
Stornoway Primary was the subject of a fierce debate during the Education Committee meeting but the issue they were talking about was not the Lord’s Prayer. It was the state of the school’s sport and recreational facilities, the concerns over space and fears that the increased traffic was putting the children at risk. The Education Director faced some very tough questions.
It will be coming up again tomorrow (Wednesday) at the Capital Seminar meeting in the afternoon, when some of the Stornoway councillors will be asking for £2.5million to be spent on it right away.
The question of Stornoway Primary, built in 1969, has been raised time and time again for a good 10 years and Bernard Chisholm is something like the fourth incumbent during that time. As the current director of Education and Children’s Services, he had been asked by Councillor Rae Mackenzie to write a report about it.
Well, his report was torn apart and no wonder. It was the very definition of a whitewash. Basically, it said “everything’s fine” — but everything is very far from fine and I’m going to attempt to lay this out for you here. You will not have seen this in any of the local newspapers because it hasn’t been covered. The only place this issue did appear was on An Là, so thank goodness for the local BBC.
So today’s blog is all about what’s happening (or rather not happening) at Stornoway Primary. It’s long, it’s complicated and if you’re not a Stornoway Primary parent it will probably bore you to tears (in which case I’ll say cheerio and see you next time…).
The report that Bernie had been asked to write was about the condition of the primary school and nursery and how it rated as a priority for investment.
We need to talk about why this report had been requested. We need to talk about the problems.
They include — and this is not an exhaustive list — the gym (far too small for the number of children using it), the school pitch (unplayable for 10 months of the year), the problems of traffic around the school (“an accident waiting to happen” according to police), inadequate storage, the loss of the school library and the art room and the projected increases to the school roll, plus expansion plans for the attached nursery.
We’ll start with the gym. The recommendation from SportScotland for a school of this size is for a gym equivalent to three badminton courts. Stornoway Primary’s gym equals one badminton court. The assembly hall is used for gym sessions but has the canteen’s tables and chairs stacked at the back, plus an overhead projector system which is vulnerable to damage, so not very appropriate.
Scottish Government recommends that children have two hours a week of sport in school. It is my understanding that they’re not always getting that at Stornoway Primary because even the main gym is too small. It restricts what the children can do.
They may ostensibly be having gym for two hours but, depending on the activity, they may have to sit out on the benches for part of that. In certain activities, like particular team games, there isn’t enough room for them all to play at once so they have to take turns.
Can we talk about why it’s important to maximise the kids’ experience of PE in school? Can we? Because, as SportScotland say in their document Primary School Sports Facilities: “Physical activity is essential to the growth and development of children”.
Physical education is not just enjoyable, but helps children develop physical skills and knowledge, develop self-awareness, confidence and co-operative relationships with others and, fundamentally, helps them develop life-long attitudes to health and fitness.
I’m going to add something else to why that school PE experience is important: Because it’s free.
As a parent, I give sports lessons and clubs top priority. Michael, seven, goes to judo club after school on a Thursday, swimming lessons in Tarbert on a Saturday and we also have a Slainte membership. So I’m confident that he is getting enough physical activity, even if he got none in school, to thrive — but all that costs money and time and not everyone has either.
Judo is more than £17 a month, Slainte is £25 a month and the monthly fuel bill for taking him to Tarbert is about £60. I have the time because I’m self-employed and can choose my own hours. But what about those children whose parents are too busy? Or can’t afford it? Or, frankly, have bigger worries to contend with? We should be making sure the PE experience in schools is everything it can be, for their sakes.
During the meeting, Bernie said: “SportScotland do not provide funding to our capital programme so while they may make recommendations it’s not a recommendation that we have a statutory obligation to respond to.”
An admission right there that Stornoway Primary’s PE experience is not everything it could be, don’t you think?
That takes us to the pitch. While all the new schools throughout the islands have all-weather pitches, the one at Stornoway Primary is playable only for 10 weeks of the year. Drainage works were carried out last year to improve the condition but there are questions over how successful that was.
And storage? Stornoway Primary is groaning at the seams. Metal containers have been brought on site at the back of the school and they contain, among other things, the Bikeability bikes and equipment for the nursery, Parent Council and gym lessons.
Gym equipment stored outside the school, in a container. So teachers have to go outside for gear, probably in all weathers and potentially having to leave their classes unattended, and then face the struggle of actually trying to open these containers.
The pressure on space at Stornoway Primary also means the library had to be given up, as did the art room and, as I said earlier, there are fears the music room will be next. The loss of the library in particular — the books are now set up on the stage in the assembly room, as is a teacher’s workspace — means that the reading club, which met at lunchtime, came to an end.
This takes me to the traffic problems and they are significant. Police are concerned, saying it’s “an accident waiting to happen”.
It’s worse than that, though. An accident has happened.
One woman at the Parent Forum told us, to our horror, that her daughter had actually been hit by a car at the back of the school. With plans to extend the nursery to offer parents the increased hours by 2020, that congestion will only get worse.
The Education Director’s report on all of this concluded with the recommendation that the Comhairle “note the report and continue to support the existing strategy for estate prioritisation and investment” – which basically means doing nothing.
I’m going to pull out a few excerpts for you. It was only two and a half pages of A4, with lots of white space, so it won’t take long.
In the summary, the director wrote that the concerns raised by the Parent Council, together with local councillors, “have all been investigated and where possible addressed and Stornoway Primary is considered to be in good condition with appropriate facilities to meet the educational needs of all children now and in the future”. It “would not be prioritised” by him as requiring “a new build, new gym or significant extension”.
In the background, he wrote the school had a capacity for 570 pupils, had 461 currently on the role, and “has had significant investment over recent years in excess of £4m”.
He also said the gym facilities had been “reviewed on a number of occasions by specialist staff and the results of this shared with the Head Teacher and Parent Council.”
This specialist gym report, by the way, was never actually shown to the Parent Council. Bernie had attended a meeting, and brought the report along, but he only read excerpts from it and refused to pass it round the table for people to read for themselves.
Back to the main Education Committee report, he also said, when describing the dimensions of the gym, that it had “perimeter space of approximately 8m x 15m”.
As councillor Rae Mackenzie pointed out in the meeting, that description of the perimeter space is “misleading”, as it really refers to a foot to the wall outside the marked play area — and that foot is filled with benches. There’s a big difference between a foot-wide strip and a square area of eight by 15 metres, in terms of usability but also perception.
The first councillor to challenge the report during the committee meeting was Charlie Nicolson — a Stornoway councillor, like Rae. He spoke brilliantly and succeeded in pushing through the recommendation that Stornoway Primary be included for consideration in the Capital Seminar. A Member Officer Working Group is also to be set up to look at at the issue and members agree the Parent Council should be included in that group.
Speaking after the meeting, he told me they were very happy it was now in the mix for the Capital Seminar. “That was the biggie,” he said. “We were very happy to get the opportunity to present along with the other capital projects and get members to score them.”
He explained what they would be asking for at the seminar.
“We’re going to ask for £2.5million, which will look at the gym, the storage, the playing field, play areas in the playground and the traffic management.”
That money would be “short term”, with a new primary – either a new build or renovations to the existing school — to come later on, in the 2023-28 capital programme, after Castlebay school.
“It’s a battle for me,” admitted Charlie. “It’s been a battle for a few of us for the last seven years.”
He stressed: “The teaching is brilliant. The teachers are brilliant in Stornoway Primary. The concern is the facilities, especially the recreational ones and that’s the point we’re trying to make. The HMI report backs that… the teaching standards are very high quality.”
He said the issue had been brought to a head by the many new schools built elsewhere.
“It’s the point of having parity with the other schools and recreation facilities. We just want parity. We’ve got a good school, we’ve got good teachers. It’s the facilities.”
“Point has been done, West Side has been done, Harris, North Uist, the Nicolson has been done, Laxdale has been improved. Well, we want our school to be improved.
“It’s the biggest primary in the Western Isles, that’s the other thing. I mean, young people changing in the toilets? Come on. It should never be.”
As Charlie pointed out, the school footprint includes the nursery — but these numbers are never taken into the equation. There are an additional 180 or so children on the Stornoway Primary premises for nursery / croileagan education.
Charlie said: “They give us the figures for the primary school but they don’t give us the figure totally. The pre-school are using the facilities — the hall, the canteen, the playgrounds — and they’re always taking it out of the equation. Sorry guys, there’s another 120 in the pre-school who are using our parking, traffic management, our stage…”
At the meeting, Charlie also spoke up about the traffic issues, saying: “You mentioned putting patrol cars in there, if necessary. Well it’s necessary as far as I’m concerned.”
He concluded: “It’s recommended that the council note the report. I cannot accept that recommendation at all… We’re not listening, director. We’re not listening to the parents. Why are we not listening to the issues and concerns of the parents?
“They are very happy at the education being taught in Stornoway Primary. They are not happy about the facilities. The bottom line is to look at improving the facilities for play, recreation and fitness within Stornoway Primary.”
Councillor Rae Mackenzie, who regularly attends Parent Forum meetings, said: “I agree wholeheartedly with everything Councillor Nicolson has said. I’ve been to the school, I’ve looked round it and I don’t think this report is adequate at all — and that’s putting it politely. I asked for this report and it’s a great disappointment.
“There seems to be a consistent refusal in the department to recognise the problems at Stornoway Primary.”
Among the points he made were a questioning of a £4million “recent” spend on the school. He pointed out that £3million of that went back to 2001/02. Hardly recent.
Of the money that has been spent, “none of that has provided one square metre of extra space in the school”. Much of it went on repairs to the roof.
“Let’s be realistic,” he said. “There are no correct figures that are being presented to councillors.”
He added: “That pitch is not suitable for the biggest primary school in the Western Isles.
“The library was an excellent facility and has been moved up onto the stage. If the stage has to be used, the library has to be moved. The stage trebles up because it’s also got a teacher’s workspace.
“It’s one particular problem after another and this report says, ‘basically everything’s fine’ — but it’s not. The corridors are overcrowded with desks and I’m not sure they meet health and safety standards. I don’t accept the metal containers are suitable for storage, especially during the winter. It’s the biggest primary and play areas are virtually non-existent.
“There is no reflection, as Councillor Nicolson said, on teaching staff. They are working under very difficult conditions and they’re doing a great job.”
Councillors Gordon Murray and Calum Maclean also expressed their disappointment in the report, with Calum Maclean suggesting the building of a dedicated Gaelic school could help.
Calum Maclean also said he felt “appalled at the catalogue” of problems cited — remarking the school was not “appropriate for children “for this century” — and reminded the director of a promise made to the parents of Sandwickhill Primary.
He told Bernie: “We were involved in the closure of Sandwick school… I think back, and you remember it as well, the promises that were made to the Sandwickhill parents — that they were going to a better facility and that was one of the reasons for closing Sandwickhill.”
And Bernie did not look pleased. He did not look pleased at all.
The Parent Forum had met the night before the Education Committee meeting. They had seen the director’s report for the first time that day.
They put out a statement that night in response. The statement was measured but direct.
“The Parent Council (and a large body of representation from the wider Parent Forum) feel let down by the report and wish to express our concerns to members. The Parent Council feels the report is unbalanced and one-sided, and many concerns were raised over the accuracy and relevance of the information contained within. Furthermore, the information the report is based on has not yet been made available to us.
“The Parent Council were not adequately consulted on the content or substance of the report prior to publication. We feel the report doesn’t reflect the views of parents and the Parent Council and is dismissive of issues raised by the Parent Council over a period of years.
“We received this report far too late in the day to be able to assess it properly and to respond fully to issues which will affect capital spend for our school for many years to come. We would like to invite all elected members… to have a tour of the school to fully appreciate the issues faced day to day within the school.”
A councillor cautioned me this week that it was “necessary to work with the Comhairle — that is how we make progress” and, while I agree with that in principle, there comes a point.
Talking about how long one should keep trying to work with the Comhairle, a friend said: “It’s that thing I don’t like about here.
“They all behave as if there’s a secret backroom way to do everything and stuff you if you don’t like it.”
I was also told the Education Director had been “very supportive” of the school. Well, I’ve got to say, I’m not feeling it.
A member of the Parent Council once described him to me as “a moving target”. You think you’ve got a handle on where the conversation with him is going but then it’s out of your grasp and away off somewhere else. Another person, a teacher, said: “He wraps everybody round his finger. He’s got the gift of the gab.”
The Director of Education and Children’s Services would do well remember that the real skill in communication lies in how well you can listen. And on that score, his report card from Stornoway Primary can say only one thing. “Could do better.”
Oh, and Director? If you need help writing an adequate report next time, I’m happy to pass you my card. In fact, you can use this one if you like. Free of charge.