Consultations are flawed
I refer to the recently-published SIC proposal papers concerning the closure of four small primary schools, with those at Uyeasound and Burravoe under threat in the North Isles.
The authors of the papers have chosen to conflate, to add together, two different financial savings. The first is the share of the savings that will be made under Proposal 1 for all Shetland schools (already approved by council and not subject to government ministers’ veto). The second is the actual savings calculated for the closure of each school (that would accrue if councillors vote to proceed to closure and if ministers do not intervene).
This will be as confusing to you as it is to us and makes it look like shutting the smaller schools saves a lot more money than it actually does. Just look carefully at the figures presented in the papers to see what I mean (eg Section 7.14 in each paper).
According to the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 Statutory Guidance (for local authorities) the Act aims to “establish a new consultation process that is robust, open, transparent and fair, and seen to be so”. It requires that: “In order to minimise confusion, authorities should only consider grouping together more than one proposal in the paper where they are in some way inter-connected.”
It is obvious that the share of the Blueprint Proposal 1 savings already approved for all Shetland schools is not “inter-connected” with each primary school closure proposal, and should not have been included in the four proposal papers. In fact the inclusion of Proposal 1 savings blankets the figures in an almost impenetrable fog for all but the most determined readers, but it does appear that the education office has counted twice in some cases.
The likelihood of misinterpretation of the figures in the papers was pointed out to education officials right at the start of the statutory consultation period, but they said that the figures were not misleading. Lo and behold!
On Monday 10th January, on The Shetland News website, Pete Bevington stated that the council “hopes to save up to £700,000 a year by closing four primary schools”. He gave individual figures as follows: Uyeasound £215,182; Burravoe £227,870. The total for all four schools comes to £608,196 to £716,087.
Pete’s mistake is understandable since the proposal figures had the title, in bold, “Total Estimated Annual Savings”.
These figures are wrong if quoted for the closures themselves. The proposal papers (end of Section 5 Financial Considerations in each) state the actual savings for the closures are as follows: Uyeasound £109,876; Burravoe £114,477.
The total saving for the four schools is £444,178 per year. For Uyeasound and Burravoe alone the discrepancy amounts to £218,699 from the approximately £700,000 that will not actually be saved by closing these schools.
But again even these figures are not correct. I consider Uyeasound following the public meeting. The misleading headline savings figure (mentioned six times in the proposal paper) = £215,182. The figure for just the closure mentioned in the table in Section 5 = £109,876. But a council finance official stated categorically at the Uyeasound public meeting on Monday that the saving for closing Uyeasound was £97,054. This figure is indeed mentioned, but only twice, in the proposal paper, once at the bottom of p.44 in Appendix 4.
The £97,054 figure for Uyeasound reflects the fact that projected savings have to be reduced because there are costs that have to be transferred out to other schools/departments within the SIC and so are not saved.
The corresponding Burravoe figure is not much further reduced being £114,332, but there are still unreported expenses for additional transport costs which have been mentioned, but how long does it take to get an estimate?
Looking at the two North Isles schools only, the proposal papers actually claim the total savings from the North Isles closures is £211,386 – under half the £443,052 that has been proclaimed in the media.
In addition the detail of all the figures in the papers is being actively debated and disputed with the education service. The savings to be made shrink and shrink the longer you study the figures presented.
And the misinformation in the media continued. Also on Monday 10th January, on The Shetland Times website, Neil Riddell reported accurately that “the schools service … estimates that shutting all four schools, combined with cutbacks at the schools the pupils will be moving to, will save between £600,000 and £700,000 a year”. However he didn’t give the figures for just closing the schools.
On Friday 14th January, on The Shetland News website, Hans J Marter reported that the council hopes to “close four rural primary schools … to save around £700,000 per annum”.
Derek Jamieson of Uyeasound Parent Council is quoted as saying the saving for closure for Uyeasound was £109,000 not £215,000. But the lower figure doesn’t come from Derek Jamieson; it comes from the Uyeasound Proposal Paper! And it actually is lower in another table in the proposal papers. Confused?
Also on Friday 14th January, in The Shetland Times newspaper, Mr Riddell says on page one (losing a little of his accuracy) that “the SIC believes the four closures will help save between £600,000 and £700,000”. The only recognition of the true position is the word “help”. The individual costs of just closing the primary schools are not given on page one, six or seven, except for North Roe.
We certainly do not blame the press for being duped into transmitting misinformation from these documents. But how can we expect the press and members of the public to get an obviously “open, transparent and fair” picture of the financial aspects of the plans when the proposal papers are so patently misleading (whether deliberately so or not)? And even if councillors read the reports diligently who is going to lobby them? The members of the public that have been fed all this disinformation. We don’t think so.
A council official (not from the schools service) admitted at the Uyeasound public meeting that there might be something wrong with the presentation of financial information in the proposal papers, saying, however, that “We thought we’d made it very clear”. Afraid not!
In Curriculum for Excellence terms the proposal papers are definitely deficient in literacy. The lack of clarity is very evident. The papers cause no end of confusion. The numeracy may well be fine, but its presentation is poor, so its accuracy is a moot point. (The health and wellbeing effect on threatened staff, pupils and communities is difficult to assess, but significant nonetheless.)
So, right at the outset, we have one aspect of what is likely to lead to a government decision that the current consultations are once again “flawed”.
Burravoe Parent Council
3 Meadowbank Road,