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Scottish Parliament Speech: Schools (North-east Fife) (October 2009)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and I congratulate Ted Brocklebank on bringing it to the chamber. I am aware that attempts to secure a secondary school for north-east Fife go back to the 1970s and agree that the current situation, in which hundreds of pupils are bussed from Tayport and Newport to a Madras college that is split between two sides of St Andrews, leaves a lot to be desired.

I share Ted Brocklebank's affection for old school buildings since I was for a short time - just about the length of a session of Parliament, in fact - educated at Royal High school. I remember that the place was warmed by colossal coal fires, which meant that one could always recognise a Royal High master because he was the man with the burned bum, so to speak: the gowns were frayed where they had been baked against the fires. I left before the place had central heating, let alone got anywhere near the 20th century.

Fife Council's current plans to build a new Madras college largely meet with my approval, and I will explain why. In a country that for the benefit of my Conservative friends I will call Ruritania, in which I served at a university for something like 30 years, there has been much reconstruction of secondary schools. Those schools are big and have a wide range of student facilities with a particular concentration on technical subjects - and they are all on railway lines.

It does not seem to have occurred to folk that the business of bussing people rather slowly across northern Fife could be obviated by having a new railway station on what was the old branch line, very close to the site that is proposed for the new school. If we were in Ruritania, trains would leave Dundee - which has two universities, lots of schools and teaching hospitals - and run right through to St Andrews along what must be potentially the richest educational corridor in Scotland, although it is sadly neglected. Why is it that such a huge tourist resort and centre of learning has only a bus service through to Leuchars junction?

My suggestion - which in Ruritanian terms is utterly orthodox and rather boring - is that we have a train service that terminates in St Andrews, at a college centre station. We would, as we have heard, have an almost immediate subsidy of £1 million a year. In Ruritania, that type of service draws many orthodox passengers to use the railway services in rural areas and it restores a public service.

Our Minister for Schools and Skills can testify to the fact that, after much struggle and strife involving underestimates and overestimates, a railway was built through to Alloa. In place of the expected 150,000 or 160,000 passengers a year, more than 400,000 currently use that service, so it has been a whirl of a success.

Why is there not a bit of joined-up thinking on this matter? If we have a secondary school - an expanded Madras college - just outside St Andrews, it would be in an area that is rich in potential teachers. That is something from which Ted Brocklebank has undoubtedly benefited in his time. I speak as someone who grew up in a university town and who is well aware of the usual masses of excellent but relatively poorly paid teachers in such areas.

We ought to look at what we will do with the corridor between St Andrews and Dundee and the chances that we have to develop all the communities along it. We should think of a joined-up solution, which has already been shown to be successful in the case of Alloa. We should think about our schools and our transport systems at the same time.

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