Parent councils from Shetland’s six junior high schools have clubbed together to table fresh ideas which they say could save the SIC millions of pounds without the need for any secondary closures.
Three parent council representatives – Catriona Waddington from Baltasound, Jeremy Sansom from Aith and John Irvine from Mid Yell – presented a draft paper to the education and families committee this morning.
Consultations on the closure of Aith and Skerries are due to commence this year, depending on the outcome of the Scotland-wide commission on rural education.
Councillors unanimously agreed to bring forward a planned consultation on shutting Sandwick from 2015 to later this year. The move follows a request from parents in the South Mainland who are opposed to losing their school, but do not want a cloud of uncertainty hanging over them for the next two years.
Whalsay’s secondary department is also under threat, along with several small primaries, as part of efforts to save £3.25 million a year from the SIC’s education budget.
The parent councils are seeking to bring councillors’ attention to their “thoughtful and viable” suggestions for “substantial savings that could be realistically made without shutting a single junior high school”.
One of the measures being floated is to establish a directly funded, federated “Junior High School of Shetland” spread over five or six sites and with a single head teacher. It is suggested that the budget for such an institution would be 81 per cent of what is currently spent on those schools.
If a formula similar to that in the Highland Council region was applied to Shetland, parents believe up to £1.8 million could be saved from 2011/12 staffing levels.
That could see the number of full-time equivalent teachers cut from 193.2 to 149. It is suggested the number of principal teachers, not including heads and deputy heads, could fall from 48 to 35.
The draft document, which the parent councils acknowledge is a “work in progress” featuring some “untried, untested, embryonic” ideas, states: “It is not that Shetland has an excessive number of schools – it is that almost all the schools are very expensive, particularly in terms of staff.”
Parent councils have also raised what Ms Waddington described as “phenomenally high” spending on additional support needs (ASN).
The per-pupil spend in ASN is nearly two-and-a-half times the national average. The document suggests savings of £1.5 million, rather than the £500,000 planned, would still leave Shetland as a “very high spender in this area”.
Ms Waddington said: “As a consortium, we are really excited about our proposals to make genuine savings whilst helping to equip Shetland to deliver an innovative and 21st century education to its remoter areas.
“We believe that this can be done through the existing network of junior high schools, whilst continuing to support the role that Anderson and Brae High schools have to play in ensuring the best education for every child in Shetland.”
While acknowledging the need for financial savings, the parent councils do not understand why a relatively well-off local authority is contemplating “dismantling” its junior high school model. They caution that the end result would fail to recognise the “geographical realities” of Shetland.
It would leave high schools in Lerwick and Brae, along with junior highs in Mid Yell and Baltasound. Comparable-sized island communities in Orkney and the Western Isles have six and eight secondary schools respectively.
The 11-page document warns that a post-cuts Shetland faces the highest rate of halls of residence usage and the longest secondary school travel times anywhere in Scotland.
Mr Sansom said councillors faced an “unenviable” task in trying to make cuts, but parent councils had resolved to make constructive suggestions to save money while safeguarding secondary education. “In the team of steady pragmatists, you need a dreamer or two,” he added.
Several members of the committee welcomed the parent councils’ input. Councillors were each given copies of the document.
Councillor Peter Campbell said he was intrigued by the idea of a federated junior high school, which he thought seemed similar to the principle behind the University of the Highlands and Islands.
More on this story in Friday’s Shetland Times.