1. I am sure that I am not alone in having received correspondence in recent days from parents of pupils of St Ambrose and Buchanan high schools in Coatbridge who are concerned about the environmental safety of the site. Teachers are out on strike, and further reports in today’s press detail concerns that were raised a decade ago, before the schools were built.
I would like to examine some practical issues with the First Minister. Will the Scottish Government confirm that its review will be wide enough in scope to examine all the evidence that is coming to light, from the time when the school building was planned right through to the present day? (S5F-03441)
I thank Ruth Davidson for raising the issue. If I may Presiding Officer, I will take a bit of time to address some of the serious concerns that have been expressed.
I fully understand the concerns of parents, staff and pupils at the schools, and the Government and I are determined to do everything that is necessary to allay those concerns, to address issues and to re-establish confidence. That is why we have established the expert review team to carry out a thorough independent investigation. The answer to Ruth Davidson’s question is yes—the review team will be able to look into any relevant matters.
The review team visited the schools yesterday and will conclude its work before the end of the summer holidays. It will be for the review team to consider what further tests of pupils, staff and, indeed, the site itself are required.
We are liaising closely with North Lanarkshire Council and NHS Lanarkshire, and will continue to do so. The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills and I will meet officials later today to get an early update on the work that is being done, and the Deputy First Minister will meet parents next week.
I thank the First Minister for her response. It is important that we put on the record that the council and the national health service board are insisting that the site is safe.
The First Minister will know, however, that confidence among parents is low, and that many feel that their concerns are not being taken seriously. As Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling has said:
“Trust, transparency and good communication should be the key to dealing with these issues. The Buchanan High School case almost looks like a case study in how not to deal with the public.”
The teaching unions at the school have asked for updated testing to be carried out in order to give people further assurances, but they say that that request is being denied. It is a sensible idea; is it something that the First Minister might be able to address?
Yes—I am more than happy to address that point specifically. I say directly to the parents of children at the schools that the Government and I are taking their concerns extremely seriously. We will not rest until we have ensured that all the issues have been properly investigated, that any issues that are identified are addressed, and that every single parent of a child who is at St Ambrose high school and Buchanan high school has confidence in sending their children to school.
On testing, it will, as I said in my initial response, be for the review team to decide what further tests of pupils, staff and the site itself are required. Anything that the review team considers to be necessary should happen—the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills and I have been clear about that.
Apart from that, any parent who has concerns should discuss them with their general practitioner. The Government is already liaising with NHS Lanarkshire to ensure that resources are in place to deal with any consequent increase in demand for NHS services. As I said a moment ago, the Deputy First Minister and I will meet officials to get an early update on the work, and to look at whether it is required that further actions be taken, at this stage. The intention is to get to a point at which we can assure parents about the safety of the school that their children go to.
Finally, I want to reiterate the point that Ruth Davidson rightly made. It is the view of the NHS board and the local authority that the schools are safe for pupils to attend, but it is not enough for us to say that. We have a duty to convince and to assure parents of that, and that is what we are determined to do.
I thank the First Minister for addressing the issue of the review team looking again at environmental tests.
Another way to restore trust is to give parents clear assurances that their children have not been affected in any way, but parents tell us that they are finding it difficult to get medical tests carried out. Some are, in order to put their minds at rest, paying to have tests done privately. Can the First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport look into the matter to see whether parents are able to access tests that might reassure them that their children are well and that the school is safe?
As I indicated in my previous answer, we are already taking steps to do that. Scottish Government officials are liaising with NHS Lanarkshire to make sure that the increased demand from requests that are being made is understood, that it is able to respond to demand, and that we put in place the resources that are required to deal with the situation.
The view of the local health board is that there is no need for population testing, but we want the review team to consider that. If it comes to a different conclusion, its recommendation will be implemented. However, in the meantime, concerned parents should be able to discuss the matter with their GPs and take informed decisions. We are working to make sure that the local health service is able to deal with and respond to requests for testing.
I was asked to raise the matter today because trust is breaking down between parents and staff at the school and local government and health authorities. I hope that the assurances that the First Minister has given today will help to restore that trust.
It is worrying that concerns were raised in 2009, when the plans for the schools were first proposed.
I hope that the on-going review, to which the First Minister referred, and which is due to be published over the summer, will give the local community the assurances that it needs. If it does not, does the First Minister agree with me, and with the local community, that a full independent inquiry might be required, in order to help those excellent schools to come back together?
I will take those points in turn.
First, I am aware that there is, rightly or wrongly, an issue of trust on the part of parents in respect of what they are being told. That is why we took the decision last week to establish the independent review to address directly such issues. I hope that, through the process of the review, we can do exactly that.
What happened and the information that was available in 2010 were part of the planning process, which was the responsibility of the local authority. Reports were issued and considered then. My understanding is that the local authority took full account of the information. Of course, if it is required that those issues be looked at by the independent review team, that is exactly what should happen.
On the last part of the question, I want to ensure that the independent review process, which we set up last week, does what we want it to do, which is to get to the heart of the issues and to reassure parents. I will not, however, rule out anything beyond that. I said at the outset that we will not rest until we have got to the heart of the issues, addressed and allayed the concerns of parents and re-established confidence. We will do whatever it takes to do that. I hope that it can be done through the independent review, and I hope that all members will support it in the weeks ahead, as it gets on with its work.