SIC councillors have deferred a debate on radical plans to shut five secondary departments and five primary schools until more information on the additional costs of transporting pupils over longer distances has been provided.
Members had been asked to sanction a string of closure consultations, beginning in 2013, as part of a “refresh” of the education blueprint. With the exception of Mid Yell, it would effectively end the junior high school model of educating secondary pupils after 40 years.
The council hopes it can save £3.25 million by shutting secondaries at Aith, Baltasound, Sandwick, Skerries and Whalsay, and primaries at Burravoe, North Roe, Olnafirth, Sandness and Urafirth by 2016.
The plans have been greeted by an outpouring of hostility from Shetland parents in the past week, most notably at a well-attended public meeting in Aith Public Hall on Monday evening.
Education and families committee vice-chairman George Smith felt that, despite the “phenomenal” efforts of children’s services director Helen Budge and her team over the summer, the report did not contain all the information required.
In particular, he was uncomfortable that there was no estimate of the “more than likely” additional transport costs of shutting schools and transporting pupils longer distances by bus every day.
That had been one of the main points raised at the Aith meeting, though committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart stressed there had been some “grave misunderstandings” about the report. There is no plan to close Aith tomorrow – a full consultation with detailed costings will have to be carried out first – and “we are not going to close schools willy-nilly”, she said.
Mrs Budge and her staff have been sent away to gather the extra information, with a special education and families committee meeting pencilled in for Friday 14th September. There should be no practical delay, because any committee decision can still then be ratified by the Full Council on 20th September as originally planned.
Speaking after the meeting, Ms Wishart said councillors had a full understanding of the would-be educational savings, but no information on how much transport costs might rise. Councillors also want more detail on the maximum travel time for pupils.
She said new councillors recognised the need for more “joined-up thinking” to avoid repeating past mistakes.
“It’s not going to be deferred for long,” she said. “I was hoping the plan would be discussed without figures coming into it at all, but somehow it seemed as though people thought we were going to shut Aith Junior High without any detailed consultation.
“I hope the people feel that we are listening to what they have to say, and that we’re going to try and calm some of their major concerns about the proposals.”
She added: “I want to make it clear that nothing is going to happen until next year. We wouldn’t even have a proposal until next year, there wouldn’t be any closures for two years – but that seems to have got lost in the fog somehow.”
During this morning’s short discussion, watched by a handful of parents, councillor Frank Robertson said it had been clear during Monday’s meeting in Aith that folk felt there was a lack of detailed information.
Mr Robertson called for the council to look at the wider financial picture and get away from making savings in departmental “silos”.
Councillor Peter Campbell was frustrated by the deferral, feeling the council was “doing the community a disservice” – particularly those who had travelled to Lerwick to hear the debate.
Members did formally agree, as expected, to postpone a planned consultation this autumn on shutting Olnafirth’s 13-pupil primary school. That had already been delayed previously when education minister Mike Russell introduced a moratorium on school closures.
Mrs Budge said Cosla’s advice was that the SIC could go ahead and consult on that closure, but would need to consider “political, legal and practical challenges in doing so at this time”. Olnafirth will now form part of the wider “refresh” of the education blueprint.
Councillors received a sliver of good news from head of finance James Gray on efforts to save £1.9 million from the £46 million education and families budget in this financial year.
Reminding members that this council “will actually be bankrupt if these savings aren’t delivered” in the coming years, Mr Gray reported good progress – £1.4 million in savings have already been verified by his staff.
Among the measures introduced to save money are changes to primary and secondary teaching levels, abolishing the science and technology fair and lending international education staff to Aberdeen City Council.