School closure debate begins
By JOHN ROBERTSON and RYAN TAYLOR
The first political skirmish over closing rural schools is set to take place in the Town Hall on Thursday when SIC councillors debate the controversial so-called blueprint for education which has been a year-and-a-half in the making.
The blueprint is essentially about streamlining the network of 33 schools to face the next 10 years while improving pupils’ educational experiences and adapting to national changes in education.
During the recent consultation it became clear that primary schools with fewer than 20 pupils, other than in the outer isles, are considered uneconomic and not ideal for providing good education. On those grounds the picture is bleak for the primaries in Fetlar, Sandness, Uyeasound, Cullivoe and Burravoe, although closing a rural school is considered “a decision of last resort taken only after all alternatives to closure have been thoroughly considered”. Some junior high schools are also vulnerable.
However, officials have so far not revealed proposals to close or amalgamate specific schools. These and other “action plans” will only be unveiled next month when another report is written for the services committee meeting on 12th March.
The report to Thursday’s special services committee meeting proposes that councillors agree broad “principles” for education over the next 10 years which will form the basis of the action plans aimed at creating a model which “considers the educational and financial viability for schools and communities”.
The blueprint is overshadowed by the SIC’s ruling that it can no longer afford to raid its reserves to the same levels and education is the biggest drain. At the same time school rolls are plummeting. The number of children between three and 16 is expected to fall by 22 per cent by 2027, from 3,910 to 3,047. The report to Thursday’s meeting states: “The current model of delivery is no longer affordable.” A new factor is the council’s problems recruiting enough teachers, particularly in finding head teachers for some schools.
Services chairman Gussie Angus warned in December the schools network could no longer be afforded and councillors had to cut schools or cut care for the elderly or ferries.
The report to next week’s meeting also contains a 44-page analysis of the findings from the blueprint consultation which was carried out throughout Shetland at the end of last year.
Meanwhile a decision over the new Anderson High School will be delayed for another week after councillors agreed queries and concerns about its future should be addressed by officials.
Councillors had been due to decide on whether to submit slimmed down proposals for the new school in Lerwick to the planning department when they met at the Town Hall yesterday.
A report by executive director of education and social care Hazel Sutherland recommended the £49 million development should go ahead on the current planned site at the Knab.
However earlier in the week councillor Jonathan Wills, who has persistently called for alternative sites to be considered, distributed a lengthy list of queries and concerns surrounding the report and the choice of the Knab site.
Mr Angus called for the decision to be deferred until next Thursday, when councillors will discuss the blueprint for education at a special services committee meeting. His call was baced by the committee.