Edinburgh school closures hitting neediest kids hardest

Gayle Taylor with students
Rev Gayle Taylor with students from Texas.

Edinburgh's school closures are placing an extra burden on pupils with disabilities and mental health challenges, says a school chaplain and counsellor.

Rev Gayle Taylor is Associate Minister with special responsibilities for youth at Colinton Parish Church. She's also a part-time counsellor at Firrhill High school and chaplain to Braidburn Special Needs School and to Bonaly and Colinton primary schools.

"When we think of schools we instantly think of the education side," Gayle says. "We think about the books, the subjects and what the pupils are learning. But being part of the pastoral support team in schools, I know how much support young people get from the social side of schools and the relationships they have there. Young people just don't manage as well without those anchors."

Pupils might be dealing with anything from a family breakup, or a parent who is struggling with mental or physical health problems to a history of frequent school changes.

"Some of our pupils have been to 6 or 7 schools because their parents are in the army and they are moved around a lot," Gayle says. "When children have been through a lot of disruption and inconsistency they often struggle to make friendships and adjust."

For those pupils school offers a place of safety and consistency where children receive counselling, nourishment and support from understanding adults.

"There is evidence that when young people have contact with supportive adults in addition to their parents, their attendance and their attainment at school improves. Something like this problem with the building is adding to their sense of being unsettled."

While Firrhill's 4th, 5th and 6th year pupils have been able to return to school to prepare for exams, a question mark remains over what will happen in the coming weeks.

Small things matter, especially when a child is already under stress, Gayle says. School staff who know you are staying with your grandma because your mum is in hospital understand why you are not wearing your school tie, for example. A dinner lady who knows a child's name notices if they don't have lunch and can make sure they eat.

Braidburn pupils have been divided between various other schools this week, Gayle says.

"For all young people, routine and consistency are very important and give anchors that help them through their week but for pupils with additional support needs, being moved from your normal building is very scary and confusing."

To help meet pupils' physical and emotional needs, Braidburn runs a tuck shop and after school programmes that include swimming, physiotherapy and language therapy, she adds.

"Pupils who are wheelchair users and are bussed to school are dependent on their parents for transportation so their social life is centred on the friends they make in school. For them, the friendships you have at school are very important because if it doesn't happen at school, it doesn't happen. Schools are not just part of the community, they are communities in themselves."