Fife 'super campus': Work on new high schools can begin as councillors give green light

Around £19 million of preparatory works for two new high schools can begin after the business case for them was signed off by councillors.

Thursday, 5th August 2021, 2:16 pm
Updated Thursday, 5th August 2021, 2:19 pm
The agreement of the "outline" business case essentially green-lights the relocation of both schools from their existing sites to the new Dunfermline Learning Campus, which they will share with a new Fife College campus.

Elected members have hailed the plans for the new Woodmill and St Columba's RC as "hugely important" - but say the merging of the schools with a new Fife College campus at Halbeath is not without its risks.

The agreement of the "outline" business case on Thursday essentially green-lights the relocation of both schools from their existing sites to the new Dunfermline Learning Campus, which they will share with a new Fife College campus.

Finer details of the project are expected to be signed off when the full business case is discussed next year, with a target completion date of summer 2024. However £19m of early works, such as design, enabling groundworks and land purchases, can go ahead as of now - essentially firing the starting pistol on the "super-campus" project.

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Council co-leader David Ross said: "This is a hugely important project for us. Let's hope we can deliver the kind of educational facilities the kids in our area deserve."

Hopes are high for the Dunfermline Learning Campus, which will blend two high schools and a further education college in what is thought to be the first facility of its kind in Scotland.

However, councillors on Fife's policy and resources committee were not shy in airing concerns about the safeguarding of children around college-age adults, the independence of the non-denominational and Roman Catholic high schools as well as what could happen if the project fails at a later date.

Shelagh McLean, head of education and children’s services, said the safeguarding of children was of "paramount importance" and was being considered as the school was being designed.

She added that there are no plans to cut back on teacher numbers, and says the high schools will retain their own devolved budgets and independent teaching - with the exception, perhaps, of Higher and Advanced Higher classes.

"We are looking to run the two schools as their own entities, with devolved budgets - but they will be sharing some facilities," she said.

"We've looked at the types of areas the schools could share but that doesn't mean they will share [simultaneous] occupation of these rooms, though they will be able where that makes sense."

The education boss also noted that the Catholic Church had been involved in discussions for the Learning Campus and was "generally very happy" with the plans. Rooms designed for use by St Columba's will be designed with Christian teaching in mind - including crucifixes in the classroom.

However, several area councillors are concerned that the departure of both Woodmill and St Columba's from the Abbeyview housing estate will lead to a loss of community facilities for locals.

Between them, the schools boast tennis, squash and badminton courts, football pitches, gyms and a swimming pool, all of which are open to the public outside of school hours.

Fife Council is consulting on how it might create alternative facilities to replace the schools when they go, including by refurbishing buildings - but elected members are yet to be convinced of the council's commitment to residents.

Dunfermline North Labour councillor Helen Law said: "It's absolutely clear that the community are not in favour of a 'half-and-half' refurb or extension and would prefer to have a complete rebuild, and I would like to put on record that I support the community in this. I recall that a new facility was promised."

Education boss McLean said she is aware of the Abbeyview concerns and that "mitigation" for the loss of the facilities is coming, including the retention of some at Woodmill, but declined to go into further detail during the meeting. More information is expected to come out in a consultation report to be published on August 16.

There are also unanswered questions about the risks associated with the ambitious campus project - estimated to be worth around a third of a billion pounds once the college is factored in.

Liability for government backed projects tends to be limited to the local authority - but the council hopes to limit its responsibility due to the extraordinary circumstances of the last 18 months.

Eileen Roward, executive director of finance, said that the Covid-19 pandemic and issues associated with Brexit have created pressures on building materials and tradespeople.

"The expectation in normal times is that the council would bear the risk but what we're experiencing now is not normal times," she said.

Following a request from Glenrothes West & Kinglassie Labour councillor Altany Craik, Fife Council leaders David Ross and David Alexander will write to the Scottish Government seeking assurances that they will not be left carrying the can should any part of the project fail.

SNP group leader and council co-leader Cllr Alexander said: "It's right to explore and scrutinise the risks associated with this project - but the greater the risk the greater the achievement.

"This is the biggest education project in Scotland and the first of its kind. I have no doubt it will be the most scrutinised project in Scotland.

"It is huge for Fife and there will be challenges - but we have a very experienced team involved and while it will test us all when you look at the benefits the risks become less.

"I am sure come 2024/25 the team will be very chuffed with themselves."