‘Quick Fix’ is no solution for new Madras

Ex-Madras College rector Lindsay Matheson (right) pictured at the South Street campus quadrangle with his successor, Ian Jones (second from right) and two previous incumbents.
Ex-Madras College rector Lindsay Matheson (right) pictured at the South Street campus quadrangle with his successor, Ian Jones (second from right) and two previous incumbents.

As the blame game escalates over the demise of the historic partnership between St Andrews University and Fife Council to develop a new secondary school in the town, a former rector of Madras College has made it clear that there must be no “quick fix” to resolve the long-standing quest for a single-site institution.

The appeal by Lindsay Matheson, who was involved at the outset of the historic proposals, comes as a war of words between both parties heightens in the wake of the decision by the university to withdraw from the joint project to develop a replacement for Madras on university land.

With the two parties squabbling over who is responsible for the abandonment of the much anticipated £40 million project, the former rector told the Citizen in an exclusive interview: ”This is an exceedingly sad day in the long and proud history of Madras College. A vision that offered a worthy successor to the current split-site school has been shattered.”

Mr Matheson said that the search for an imaginative solution to the well-documented problems of the split-site was begun in earnest over 10 years ago by the last School Board, under Professor Peter McKiernan’s inspiring leadership.

He added: ”The new Parent Council has continued to support the central idea of a school-university structural link that would benefit the whole community.

“It is difficult to understand why the purity and simplicity of this concept, embraced by both major parties from the outset, should have proved impossible to deliver.

It is difficult to accept that, even as recriminations begin, there should not still be hope for the project to be resuscitated.

“History will judge this lost opportunity severely. The 600th anniversary of the foundation of the university would have been truly celebrated had this imaginative scheme succeeded, confirming the broad base of the institution within the wider community in a manner that could scarcely have been bettered.

“If all is indeed lost in this scheme then it becomes imperative for the alternative solution to be of the very best quality available, not just a quick fix for the long-standing problem.

“The school must be designed to deliver the modern curriculum flexibly and imaginatively. It must provide the right kind of facilities that will benefit community learning. It must be built in the best place to minimise travel costs and environmental impact. It must have all its indoor and outdoor facilities on one site. These criteria are common to new schools. Anything less would be a quick fix.”

His sentiments were echoed by local Fife Councillor Robin Waterston, who emphasised that the priority now is to “move on.”

He added: ”This has been a long-running saga, and the goal was ambitious. Some will try to apportion blame, but the objective had widespread public support and - until very recently - there was strong encouragement from all stakeholders for the two bodies to persist in the endeavour. It is all too easy to be wise in hindsight.

“The absolute priority now is to move on. The critical issue is the future education of the children. Madras needs renewal and we must endeavour to focus now on the best solution independent of the university.

‘‘A lot of work has already been done on this by officers, so we are not starting from scratch. The funding from Fife Council remains guaranteed.”

Councillor Elizabeth Riches, depute leader of Fife Council, has been particularly critical of the role of the university in the failure to complete the deal.

She told the Citizen: ”The university has made it almost impossible for the council to conclude any meaningful deal over land exchange necessary for building the new school. It has missed a mutually agreed date to have its land independently valued.

“Time and again it has changed its mind as to which piece of land it might consider allowing the new Madras to be built upon. Each time the university changed its mind our chief officers had to patiently and painstakingly work out if it would be possible to build a school on the suggested land.

“In order to respond to the changing demands of the university, the council has even investigated ways of finding extra money to contribute to the university’s 12-court games hall. None of this was enough to conclude a deal.

“I have been dismayed and disappointed by the manner in which the university attempts to conduct business.”

Fellow Councillor Maggie Taylor accused the institution of “keeping moving the goalposts” and also claimed it wanted “everything on their terms.”

Ian Jones, headteacher of Madras College, said: “It is regrettable that the university has decided to withdraw from our joint project. However, it does allow us to focus clearly on developing the new school on a site wholly owned by, and in the control of, Fife Council.

“Continuing the high standard of learning and teaching, promoting our substantial range of extra-curricular activities and recognising and celebrating the achievement of all our pupils remain our priorities. This focus will be maintained as we move with greater clarity to plan the new school.”

Councillor Peter Grant, leader of Fife Council, said he understood the “intense frustration” following the collapse of the deal, but made it clear that a new single-site secondary school in St Andrews is “a priority.”

He added: ”A new school is long overdue, Our immediate priority will be to secure a decision on an alternative single site school in St Andrews. We are confident that the replacement for Madras College will meet our original aims and aspirations to create a modern and inspirational school building.”

He said that the council meeting on September 22 will take a decision on an alternative site for a single campus school - and that decision is likely to take account of earlier work which clearly identified the current Kilrymont site as the most suitable location.

John Barnett, chairman of Madras College Parent Council, said: ”Understandably, parents are extremely disappointed by the news. However, I have always recognised that negotiations on such a complex collaborative project would not be simple, and that the eventual outcome could not be forecast with complete certainty.

”Parents, and also I am sure people in general in the wider communities which Madras College serves, are now keen to participate in an immediate, thorough and speedy evaluation of the available options. It is fair to say that there is not at present unanimity on the optimum alternative site and plan.

”While all the options must be afforded due consideration and critical analysis of their respective pros and cons, including environmental implications, this stage should be conducted with all energy and intensity within a strict timetable.

”We owe it to present and future generations of children to make available as soon as possible a single site school building fit for purpose and capable of delivering the first class education which they deserve.”

Meanwhile, the Conservative group on Fife Council has called for a rethink on secondary education in north east Fife in the light of the collapse of negotiations.

Councillor Dorothea Morrison said: ”We are now calling on the council to implement a two-school solution incorporating a new Tay Bridgehead school and a refurbished Madras on the South Street site, as preferred by St Andrews parents.”

Announcing the withdrawal of the university from the deal earlier this week, principal and vice-chancellor Dr Louise Richardson, said that it had proved impossible to realise its ambitious vision for a new Madras School close to the heart of the university.

She told the Citizen: ”We had aspired to create a great regional secondary school that was closely linked to the academic activities of the university; that had integrated facilities and shared services; that would cultivate the ambitions of its pupils, and provide them with access to and inspiration from one of the best universities in the UK.

“Regrettably, over the course of protracted negotiations with the council, the original vision for a new school physically and academically bound with us had become substantially and irrevocably diluted.”

Responding to Councillor Riches’ criticism, a university spokesman said: ”With all due respect to Councillor Riches, St Andrews has worked hard to become one of the leading universities in the world. We have not achieved this by losing focus.

“The facts will show that our vision had always been for a school at the heart of the university, with integrated and shared services and close academic links. This was the proposal we took to Fife Council in 2006 and which we have tried tirelessly since to bring to fruition.

“Regrettably, over the course of protracted negotiations and repeated changes of emphasis by the council, the original vision for a new school physically and academically bound with us had become substantially and irrevocably diluted.

“The new Madras had become little more than a land deal for a site disconnected from the town and the university, with minimal sharing of facilities and services.

“This was no longer the proud plan which we hoped would allow St Andrews and Fife to set a new benchmark in education and it would have been misleading to parents and pupils to pretend otherwise.

We wish Fife Council every success in its efforts to implement a new plan for Madras and will continue to offer any and all support appropriate to this very important project.

“It was a hugely difficult decision to step aside, but in doing so we are convinced we have acted in the best interests of the university, the pupils of Madras and the town of St Andrews.”

Within hours of the institution pulling the plug on the deal the mud slinging started with both parties launching accusations and apportioning blame as to how and why the much heralded proposal bit the dust.

It’s understood the university lost patience with the council after it failed to respond to a Heads of Terms agreement, sought to change the school plan again, cut the amount of money it was prepared to invest in shared sports facilities and insisted the university should pay for the South Street site, rather than honour the excambion agreement on which the original deal was founded.

The final straw for the university came after the Citizen’s exclusive revelations that the council may not have been legally entitled to sell or dispose of the current South Street site of Madras in the first place, because of an ancient charter signed by Mary Queen of Scots which gifted the land to the town.

The Citizen understands that the local authority has still not been able to produce an expert legal opinion to the contrary. Facing the prospect of new delays to the school project while lawyers were consulted about the South Street site, the university reluctantly decided enough was enough.

For its part, the council claim that the university continuously dallied over agreeing a final option for the site of the proposed school.

The authority has made it clear that in relation to the land deal, the whole of the site of the South Street building was worth substantially more than the land required for the new school and there is also evidence that the university introduced another new condition over the valuation process that the deal would only go ahead if it came out in its favour.

Finally, it has emerged that in talks three days before the university pulled the plug, it stated that the agreement of Heads of Terms with the council was a precondition to proceeding with the valuations - an issue not highlighted previously.