Serious structural defects discovered in 23 schools here - all built by the same company - have been the subject of public controversy and debate over the past month, but Scotland discovered very similar defects two years ago across a significant number of its newly-built schools too.
In the closing days of January of 2016 Storm Gertrude swept across Ireland and the UK.
On the morning of 29 January 2016, at Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh, Gertrude’s forceful winds knocked a large portion of the school’s gable wall to the ground.
Nine tonnes of bricks went crashing onto a pathway below.
It was a matter of "timing and luck" that no one was injured or killed.
The area where the bricks fell was one "where children could easily have been standing or passing through".
These comments are from the report of an Edinburgh City Council-commissioned inquiry that was held to ascertain what caused the collapse of the Oxgangs primary school wall, and how it came to pass that Oxgangs, as well as 16 other modern schools in the Edinburgh Council area had come to be built with structural flaws deemed so serious that a decision had been taken to shut down all 17 on safety grounds.
"One does not require much imagination to think of what the consequences might have been if [the collapse] had happened an hour or so later", the report, published in April of last year, concluded.
It’s the kind of terrifying scenario that is sure to have presented itself in the minds of parents and others attached to schools here affected by our own recent schools’ structural defects controversy.
It identifies inadequately placed wall ties, which are used to hold exterior and interior walls together and to attach them to the rest of the building, as a primary cause of the external wall collapse.
The inquiry found wall ties had not been properly embedded in the structures affected.
This is similar to what the Irish Department of Education says was discovered in the walls of the schools here - wall ties either absent or improperly placed.
"It is the view of the Inquiry", the Scottish report stated, "that the primary cause of the collapse of the wall at Oxgangs school was poor quality construction in the building of the wall which failed to achieve the required minimum embedment of 50mm for the wall ties".
The report continued; "The poor quality relates to all three of the following aspects:
- the direct laying of the bricks and the positioning of the wall ties;
- the direct supervision of the laying of the bricks and the positioning of the wall ties; and
- the quality assurance processes used by the sub- contractor and main contractor to confirm the quality of the construction of the walls.
But the Edinburgh schools had other problems too. Structural examinations found that potential dangers were not just confined to the external walls.
Engineers discovered that internal walls were potentially unsafe too.
They found that "head restraints" - which secure internal walls by tying them to a building’s steel structure - were either missing or inadequate, and that this "could result in an inward collapse of masonry into a classroom or other area occupied by children, teachers or staff".
This is how Department of Education spokespeople described the dangers discovered by engineers in a small number of schools built by Western Building Systems in Ireland regarding internal walls; that parts of the wall could fall inwards.
We don’t know if problems with head restraints were the cause of the concern here, because the department has not released its reports.
The Edinburgh inquiry drew a number of conclusions and made a large number of recommendations.
The report stated: "It would be naïve to assume that the lack of quality control evidenced in the construction of the walls of the Edinburgh schools is limited either to Edinburgh or to school buildings."
It points out that the 17 schools in question, while all built under one Public Private Partnership consortium, were constructed by a variety of different companies.
"The same set of fundamental defects, impacting on the structural integrity of the external walls of the schools" were, it states, found across 17 schools, "built by a range of different main contractors, bricklaying subcontractors, and bricklaying squads".
The report also lists a significant number of Scottish schools beyond the Edinburgh area where similar defects were discovered.
"It is the unequivocally held view of the Inquiry", the Edinburgh report stated, "that there were fundamental and widespread failures of the quality assurance processes of the various contractors and sub-contractors, who built or oversaw the building of the ... schools".
It continues to describe a potentially systemic problem;
"This was not the result of the isolated incompetence of a rogue sub-contractor or bricklaying squad. Similar defects have been identified across other school buildings in Scotland. Some of these, predating the collapse in Edinburgh, also resulted in the collapse of brickwork panels. Again, fortuitously, these did not cause injury to school children."
Again the Edinburgh inquiry reiterated that it would be "naïve" to suggest that the problem only related to the construction of schools.
"If these defects are present in school buildings, there is also a likelihood that they are present with similar frequency in other buildings that contain large masonry panels or where masonry panels are required to be tied back to a structural frame."
It went on: "The fact that this sub-standard, unacceptable and potentially dangerous quality of construction simultaneously failed to be identified and rectified on so many different sites would suggest that the standard of wall construction in the industry may be a more widespread problem."
Following the Edinburgh report, the Scottish government requested all local authorities in Scotland to undertake a review of their school buildings.
In April of last year, the BBC in Scotland reported that a total of 72 schools had undergone structural remediation work as a result.
More than 7,000 primary school children in Edinburgh were affected. They spent 10 weeks in temporary accommodation while the problems at their schools were being rectified.
This report finds that they lost an average of 71 minutes tuition time per day. One hour and ten minutes per day is a huge amount of time to lose.
On a more positive note however, the principal of Oxgangs Primary School told the inquiry:
"I expected to see a big dip in levels of attainment but in fact this never materialised. In fact, in some cases I have seen something of an improvement. Overall, I would say that the experience for children has been at worst neutral."
There are other interesting features of the Scottish report that stand out for an Irish reader.
Engineers discovered "the widespread occurrence of defects in fire-stopping in the same buildings".
Here, the first red flag raised in relation to the Western Building Systems schools, involved breaches of fire safety standards discovered in fire safety audits at a number of the schools.
Those breaches included "inappropriate or non-existing firestopping" discovered at some schools.
For at least one school at the centre of the Edinburgh controversy problems have continued.
Earlier this year Oxgangs primary was back in the public eye after a ceiling tile fell and hit a pupil.
An examination showed that hangers used to suspend the tiles were missing.
In a separate development, loose flashing was also discovered on the school roof during a storm earlier this year.
This week BBC Scotland reported that a settlement has been reached between Edinburgh Council and the consortium responsible for building the 17 schools.
The BBC reported that while the exact figure would not be made public "it is understood the costs run into several million pounds".
In Ireland we are a long way from ascertaining the cost of what has occurred here, and who should pay.
Those costs will include both short-term and any long-term remediation works on the 23 school buildings that appear to be affected; the cost of setting up alternative accommodation for pupils; and the cost of bus hire to bring them there.
Here, as in Scotland, those costs are likely to be significant.
The Minister for Education has promised an investigation into what has happened here. But there is no sign as yet of a formal independent inquiry such as that carried out in Scotland.
Western Building Systems has pointed out again and again that the buildings in question were all previously certified for completion as being free from defects and suitable for use.
Minister for Education Joe McHugh told an Oireachtas committee that an inquiry would include examining quality control, workmanship, and oversight.
Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland when the issue first erupted he said three questions had to be answered; "What happened, what went wrong, and who is responsible".
Given the Scottish experience, and the conclusions the Edinburgh inquiry arrived at, two further questions could be added; how can we be sure that the kind of problems identified by engineers in the Western Building Schools here are confined to Western Building Systems school buildings only? And should not other buildings here now be tested and investigated, as was done in Scotland, to try to find out.