Aith Junior High School could close in 2014 under new council proposals
Shetland Islands Council has unveiled radical new plans to shut a raft of secondary departments and primary schools between now and 2016.
If councillors back the measures – part of the local authority’s efforts to address its deep-rooted financial crisis – it would see the doors of all but one of the islands’ junior highs shut in the next four years. That would leave the Anderson High School, Brae High School and Mid Yell Junior High as the only providers of secondary education in Shetland.
The new plan, resulting from a request by the outgoing council in February for a “refresh” of the SIC’s blueprint for education, is to phase the closures over a three-year period. Five primary schools are also set to be placed under the threat of closure.
The council has not yet issued estimates of the annual savings it hopes to make by shutting each of the schools, but it is expected to do so in a more detailed report going before elected members at next Wednesday’s crunch education and families committee meeting. In total, Hayfield officials have been asked to identify £3 million-worth of spending cuts through the “refresh”.
Under the phased programme, put forward by children’s services director Helen Budge, consultations would commence on closing the secondary departments in Aith and Skerries next year. If those closures are approved, pupils will be transferred to the AHS in August 2014.
Also forming part of the first phase, consultation on shutting Olnafirth Primary School – now set to be postponed until the Scottish government has published the findings of its Commission on Rural Education – could result in pupils moving to Brae in two years.
Phase two, with consultations to be staged in 2014, would see the focus shift to the North Isles. Baltasound’s secondary department and Burravoe’s primary school, which was saved by the government’s intervention last year, could close with pupils transferred to Mid Yell for the 2015-16 school year.
Also earmarked for closure in the second tranche are the North Roe and Urafirth primaries. Those pupils would be shifted to Ollaberry.
The third and final phase would see secondary departments at Sandwick and Whalsay axed, with pupils being sent to the AHS after completing their primary education.
The latter consultations would take place in 2015, with pupils not being transferred until August 2016. That would, however, hinge on a new AHS being built and opened in four years, because the present building does not have the capacity to absorb all of the additional pupils.
Also pencilled in for the third phase is Sandness Primary School, which won the latest in a string of reprieves in 2011. The plan would be to move its pupils to the Happyhansel four years from now.
Education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart said people had been asking the council to produce a fresh plan for education for a long time. While she fully accepted many of the proposals will be unpopular, she said the SIC’s financial predicament means that finding big savings was essential.
“People have been asking for a plan for some considerable time. Here is the plan. It will be debated on Wednesday and councillors will be able to look at what’s being planned and decide whether they’re going to go along with it,” she told The Shetland Times.
Ms Wishart accepted that, if the new AHS cannot be opened in 2016, the council would “certainly have to think again, but at the moment this is the way we can see to make the budget cuts that are necessary while still providing the best possible education for young people.
“If you spread the resources too thinly you’ll end up with a system that doesn’t provide the breadth of curriculum for everyone, so the thinking is we can provide the curriculum best in this way.”
Mrs Budge said the intention was to retain a solitary junior high at Mid Yell because it was a new building only completed in October 2010. It would continue to provide education from S1 to S4.
She said: “I appreciate some folk might say that’s not equal provision, but the current financial position of the SIC means we’re not able to sustain the delivery of curriculum for excellence throughout our junior high school estate.”
The proposal to start with Aith, Mrs Budge continued, was partly related to pupil numbers. SIC officials believe Aith’s secondary pupil roll of just under 100 could be absorbed within the existing AHS buildings, whereas Sandwick’s larger roll would present a problem.
In addition, while Whalsay secondary pupils would require accommodation during the school week in Lerwick, the majority of Aith pupils could be bussed to the town each day, she added.
Aith Parent Council chairman Jeremy Sansom said parents had felt there had been a “cloud over the school for quite a while now”, but the proposed timing of the closure “seems preposterously close when issues around the new high school haven’t been resolved yet”.
It would mean the current AHS absorbing the Aith pupils for a minimum period of two years. But Mr Sansom belives it is already “quite a battle to get from class to class at the moment” at the Knab establishment.
He feels there is a broad consensus that a majority of West Side parents would oppose the closure of Aith. Mr Sansom’s personal view is that the council must be clear about its policy towards remoter areas.
He said: “This could have quite severe consequences for rural life in Shetland. Some would argue what we have is an unsustainable luxury. Others would argue there’s useful infrastructure in rural areas that could grow and accommodate a lot more people over the coming decades.
“Does the council want to let these areas fall into decline, or does it want to continue having a buoyant Shetland-wide, rather than Lerwick-centric, economy?”
Since the SIC began the blueprint for education exercise, it has pushed through the closure of Scalloway’s secondary department and Uyeasound’s primary school. That was before Scottish education minister Mike Russell announced a moratorium on closures while he set up a commission to examine rural education. Its findings are likely to be published early in 2013.
As part of a three-page document published yesterday, the SIC set out a brief “statement for education” for 2012-2017. It vows to provide primary education in all remote islands and to ensure that a primary school child “does not travel for more than 30 minutes in a single journey”. Secondary pupils will not have to face a journey of more than 55 minutes.