Scotland Election 2016

Parties call for inquiry into Edinburgh school closures

school work
Image caption Inspection work is being carried out at schools across Edinburgh

Nicola Sturgeon has led calls for a full inquiry into the closure of 17 Edinburgh schools over safety concerns.

Ms Sturgeon's SNP has also called for Labour to apologise for "signing up to extortionate PFI contracts" that had delivered "substandard buildings".

Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said her party had needed to rebuild schools because of the state the Conservatives had left them in before devolution.

The Liberal Democrats have also called for an inquiry to take place.

And the Conservatives accused the SNP of ignoring its suggestions on how such situations could be avoided.

Scotland's political leaders were speaking about the school closures while campaigning ahead of the 5 May Holyrood election.

More than 7,000 pupils across Edinburgh have been affected by the closure of five secondary, 10 primary and two special schools.

All 17 schools were built a decade ago by Miller Construction as part of a £360m private finance initiative (PFI) deal between City of Edinburgh Council and the Edinburgh Schools Partnership (ESP) private finance consortium.

Under PFI, contractors paid for the construction costs and then rented the finished building back to the public sector.

PFI was favoured by the Labour/Liberal Democrat administration at Holyrood for funding big building projects, but was scrapped by the SNP after it came to power in 2007, with the alternative Scottish Futures Trust established instead.

'Big questions'

Ms Sturgeon told BBC Scotland that there was a case for a "longer term inquiry" into the construction of the 17 Edinburgh schools after the immediate problems had been resolved.

She said the SNP had always been concerned that PFI contracts had prioritised private profit rather than quality.

And she said there could be "big questions for those in charge at the time to answer" over the contracts.

Ms Sturgeon added: "These were schools built 10 or more years ago under a system of PFI that at the time people, including the SNP had real concerns about - concerns being that these contacts prioritised private profit over quality and the interests of pupils.

"If it turns out that this a legacy of those PFI projects, then there will be big questions for those who were in charge at the time to answer."

Image caption Faults have been found in at least four of the 17 schools that have had to be closed

Speaking at an election event at the Queen Margaret Union in Glasgow, Ms Dugdale said it was "very worrying" for families who were having to find childcare at very short notice, but that pupil safety was paramount.

She added: "I am sure, in time, there will be scope to look at what has happened over the last few years as well."

Ms Dugdale said Labour had needed to rebuild hundreds of schools across Scotland when it was in power at Holyrood because they had been "left in rack and ruin by the Tories" before the Scottish Parliament was created.

She added: "I am not going to apologise for rebuilding hundreds of schools across Scotland. There are questions of course about what is happening around the quality of the building that has taken place, and yes we should examine those questions.

"But right now the most important things are making sure that these buildings are safe, and that those students faced with exams have alternative, appropriate accommodation to help them continue with their studies."

'Constructive suggestions'

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said it was "unprecedented" to have so many schools closed at once, and so close to the exam period.

She added: "We made perfectly reasonable and constructive suggestions on how such situations could be prevented, but the SNP did nothing.

"The SNP must explain why it ignored our calls, and say what it plans to do to stop a repeat across other school areas."

Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur said it was important that the details of the PFI deal were examined, and that a full inquiry was held "into how we got here".

He added: "But our priority right now needs to be the safety of pupils and school staff. We also need to ensure those students preparing to take exams are not left in the dark.

"There is a strong case for the SQA to look again at the timings of some of these papers.

"If exams need to be delayed then they should be and the exam boards need to work with schools to ensure that this is done with minimum disruption."

The Scottish Greens called at the weekend for a "root and branch review" of PFI contracts.

The party's Andy Wightman said: "The private financing of schools, invented by the Tories, and championed by Labour, is not only a feature of Edinburgh. Nor is it even restricted to schools, with hospitals and other health facilities also built in this way.

"So the Edinburgh schools fiasco opens up a massive can of worms as to what the true legacy is of years of private financing of core public services."