No safety issues at the PPP secondary schools in Borders, says council.

Earlston High School.
Earlston High School.

There is “no information at this time” indicating any safety issues at three Borders secondary schools built under a public private partnership (PPP) arrangement.

The assurance was issued by Scottish Borders Council (SBC) in response to the closure, announced on Friday, of 17 similarly funded private finance initiative (PFI) schools in Edinburgh.

Earlston, Duns and Eyemouth are expected to open on Monday after the Easter break.

In the wake of the Edinburgh findings, SBC had received a request, issued to all Scottish councils by the Scottish Government, to carry out urgent safety checks at all its schools.

The council revealed it had inspected its 63 primaries and nine secondaries following an incident at Liberton High in Edinburgh in March 2014, when a pupil died after a gym changing room wall collapsed.

“Following these inspections, some minor remedial works were carried out at the region’s three PPP schools, but no significant issues were identified,” said an SBC statement. “In addition, further inspections were carried out at the three PPP schools on January 29 this year following the damage to Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh caused by high winds. No areas of concerns at any of the sites were found during these inspections.”

After the incident at PFI-built Oxgangs, in which hundreds of bricks from an external wall were blown down, inspectors in the capital found problems with the way the wall had been erected in 2005 and uncovered similar faults at three other PFI schools.

On Friday, the Edinburgh Schools Partnership (ESP), the private consortium which includes Miller Construction who built the city schools, conceded that further serious defects had been found at Oxgangs and another school and that both were no longer safe to occupy.

The decision by Edinburgh City Council to close all 17 PFI schools was taken after ESP confirmed it was impossible to confirm if the defects might exist at other estate buildings.

SBC plans to work with its PPP partner Scottish Borders Education Partnership (SBEP) to consider if further assessments are required.

“SBEP is committed to working in partnership with SBC to ensure the safety of the pupils and the safe operations of its buildings,” a council statement said. “At this time there is no information which indicates there are any issues at the Borders’ three PPP schools.”

It was noted that a recent closure of Howdenburn Primary in Jedburgh was due to storm damage rather than any structural issues.

No schools in the Borders were built by Miller Construction.

Scottish Borders Council’s decision to use PPP funding – effectively a rebranding of the discredited PFI (private finance initiative) model - to replace Earlston High, Berwickshire High in Duns and Eyemouth High was taken by the then ruling Conservative/Lib Dem/Independent administration in 2007.

A 30-year contract was signed with the Scottish Borders Education Partnership (SBEP), a private consortium comprising Bilfinger Berger Project Investments and John Graham (Dromore), which engaged Graham Construction to build the schools and Amey to manage the facilities.

Under the contract, the three secondaries, which opened in 2009, would be delivered for £72m with the council paying the consortium an annual charge, including interest, over the next three decades. That annual payment began at just over £6m, had risen to £8.26m in 2015/16 and will reach an estimated £14m by the end of the contract in 2039 when the council will have paid a total of over £258m, comprising £219.5m in liability/service charges and £38.6m in interest.

Notwithstanding the minor remedial works which the council says it carried out at the new schools following inspections in 2014, a range of defects were identified at 1000-pupil Earlston High two years earlier after part of an art classroom ceiling collapsed during maintenance work.

At the time the council stated: “As with all major projects and new buildings, including the three PPP schools, there will be snags and defects that appear through time.

“All defects or remedial works that arise will be addressed through the building warranty and rectified to an agreed programme of work.”

There were issues too with the biomass heating systems at the three schools which, following a review of their efficiency, were finally shut down in March, 2014.

By the time the three schools opened and in the aftermath of the 2008 banking crisis, the SNP Scottish Government had set up its own non-profit making capital investment arm, the Scottish Futures Trust (SFT).

In 2014, the SFT agreed to provide £21m of borrowing to SBC for the replacement of Kelso High School.

A company check this week revealed that the SBEP, which has no employees, has had 11 directors over its nine-year history, but only two are currently listed: Albert Henerik Naafs and Frank Manfred Schramm. Graham sold its share of its investment in the consortium in 2012.

Three of the secondary schools closed by Edinburgh City Council – at Firhill, Drummond and Royal High – were due to re-open yesterday (Wednesday) following safety checks.