Shetland Islands Council has voted to consult on school closures and prune its education expenditure by over £3 million.
Members of this morning’s crunch meeting of the SIC education and families committee voted 5-4 in favour of pressing ahead with the plans.
However, Baltasound Junior High was taken out of the consultation process at the last moment following an intervention from David Sandison. He argued the Unst school should be saved because of the council’s previous commitment to it in justification for closing Uyeasound which shut its doors for the last time in 2011.
Closing Baltasound alone would have resulted in a saving of £520,371, according to current indicitive figures. Taking it out of the consultation will trim the expected saving of £3,558,405 down to £3,038,034.
The meeting followed an updated report presented by head of children’s services Helen Budge, which outlined the requested transport costs at £391,408. It pressed for consultation on the closure of secondary departments in Aith, Skerries, Sandwick and Whalsay, as well as Baltasound, and primary schools in Burravoe, North Roe, Olnafirth, Sandness and Urafirth by 2016.
Mrs Budge argued that not making the difficult changes would ultimately result in a poorer standard of education for all pupils in the isles. Members were told maintaining the status quo would effectively mean £1,000 in education being taken away from every child in Shetland.
Peter Campbell said closing the schools would threaten rural communities. He said the prospect of closing schools was particularly sad given that it came just days after the funeral of former education committee chairman Bill Smith, who was responsible for setting up the junior high model in Shetland.
Mr Campbell said: “It’s sad we are here to consider the dismantling of the education service he was instrumental in establishing.” He said it was hypocritical of the council to, on the one hand claim Shetland was a peripheral area and, on the other fail to look after its own peripheries.
Mr Campbell warned of a “drift in population towards the central area of Shetland” and he called for the council to control its budget by setting out its priorities rather than putting school pupils at a disadvantage.
Political leader Gary Robinson, however, “reluctantly” supported the motion moved by chairwoman Vaila Wishart. He said he did not like what councillors were being asked to do, but insisted the council had little choice.
Mr Robinson insisted spending on ferries or social care would have to be cut by half if difficult decisions were not taken over the school estate. Staffing schools, he added, represented 86 per cent of the cost. “This is not about town versus country. It’s about delivering the best education we can afford.”
Mr Robinson highlighted previous attempts over the last 10 years to close schools, which the council had repeatedly shied away from. “It’s been said you should measure twice and cut once. In reality we have measured several times, but seldom have we managed to make any cuts.”
Allison Duncan was not convinced closing schools would have any detrimental impact on communities. He pointed to his own area in the South Mainland, where five schools were closed some 41 years ago.
Mr Duncan said: “Thank goodness they had the foresight to do that. It did not damage childrens’ education. It enhanced it.”
Jonathan Wills said the junior hgh model had been right at the time of its introduction. But he insisted school closures were essential if the SIC was to curb its spending.
Dr Wills said: “The last two council administrations spent 57 per cent of the reserves. The 43 per cent that remains is earning a quarter of what it used to earn.”
He insisted the council was “not sending pupils to a prison camp” by closing schools and asking youngsters to go elsewhere in the isles for their education.
Many councillors were concerned about the possible impact travelling extra distances would place on children.
Billy Fox was less than pleased by the extra travelling times closure of some schools would bring to many pupils. “I would never, as a parent, be happy for my bairns to travel on a winter’s day for an hour or an hour and a half to get to school,” he said.
There was also concern that a study of transport timetables had been carried out as a “desktop exercise”.
Steven Coutts said he, as a pupil in Unst, had experience of travelling on a bus and two ferries to get to his lessons in Brae. He said growing use of fibre optic technology could help provide lessons more cost effectively. He was concerned sending more pupils to stay in the hostel would deprive them of many of an adequate family upbringing.
George Smith supported the motion but urged that further reports be brought to the committee, should the council decide to prioritise its spending in a way which could ease the pressure on the education budget.
Gary Cleaver moved an amendment, calling for the consultation to be dropped. He feared the impact school closures would have on children through travelling times, and argued for the junior high model to be refined rather than ditched.
Mr Cleaver lost the argument to Ms Wishart who insisted there was room for manouevre in the proposals.
In the dying minutes of the meeting Mr Sandison successfully moved that Baltasound be removed from the consultation.
After the meeting Mrs Budge said: “I’m pleased they had the debate today and I think there were some valid points that were made.”
The Full Council will now be asked to ratify the decision to press ahead with the consultations at its meeting next Thursday.