18th August 2018
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Voe folk attribute falling school roll to looming closure threat

People from Voe believe the prim­ary school there would have twice the number of pupils it does today had it not faced repeated threats of closure.

Olnafirth Primary School.

Olnafirth Primary School.

That was the feeling expressed during an even-tempered public meeting in Voe hall on Wednesday evening, when parents voiced uni­form opposition to SIC plans to shut Olnafirth Primary School and send its pupils five miles up the road to Brae.

Parents also felt the option of sending their children to Mossbank or Lunnasting “might make more sense”. Children’s services director Helen Budge said that point would be taken on board.

Olnafirth’s roll now stands at 13 pupils. Hayfield officials deem that to be just 10 per cent of its capacity, though parents dispute the calculations.

A consultation paper highlighted a significant number of placing requests for children within the catch­ment area to attend neigh­bouring schools. But parents said numbers would be much healthier if the axe had not hung over the school recently.

“If we hadn’t had the years of threat we’d have double the number of pupils,” resident Peter Leask told the meeting. “It’s nearly terrorism of the people.”

Olnafirth was left in limbo when Scottish education minister Mike Russell introduced a country-wide moratorium on closures. Now that has been lifted, parent council vice-chairman David McDowall said an updated consultation document “does not provide a valid case” for closure.

Parent council vice-chairman David McDowall.

Parent council vice-chairman David McDowall.

Parents were disappointed that, having accepted cuts in resources to safeguard the school’s future, it was once more under threat.
The document suggested any damage suffered by the wider area would be minimal. That was “clearly wrong”, Mr McDowall said, as it would make it more difficult to attract young families to the area.

“If you keep removing facilities from rural areas, how do you expect to encourage people to move there?” he asked. “It’s a self-ful­filling prophecy. You’re physically almost creating [a housing crisis in and around Lerwick] by closing rural schools.”

Tagon Stores owners Scott and Phoebe Preston pointed out their shop would feel a “direct impact” – in addition to lost footfall, it also supplies the school’s milk. “To say there is little or no effect is, frankly, completely wrong,” Mr Preston said.

As is custom with school closure consultations, parents’ interpretation of the estimated savings was wildly at odds with the council’s.

Mr McDowall dismissed the estimated £91,309 a year savings. He disputed catering and transport costs, said government funding targeted at small schools would go a-begging, and noted the total figure had almost halved since an SIC report last September.

Finance chief James Gray did not accept the figures were inaccurate, but invited parents to visit his department to comb over precisely how the sums were arrived at. Mrs Budge pointed out a big chunk of the fall in estimated savings was down to the number of Olnafirth teachers dropping from two to one.

For Brae to remain a five-teacher primary department, however, its pupil roll needs to stay at or above 100 (it currently has 103 children). Mr McDowall pointed out that, in the second year following closure, a fifth teacher would only be retained thanks to extra children from Olnafirth – meaning savings would be around £40,000 a year lower than predicted.

Education and families com­mittee chairwoman Vaila Wishart and vice-chairman George Smith insisted they were going into the consultation with an open mind.

That was rubbished by one individ­ual who claimed an SIC employee told him last summer that Olnafirth’s closure was “a done deal”.

Mr Smith said: “The one con­sistent thing I hear all the time is that the council has one set of fig­ures and the community consistently challenges and questions those. I want to see us arriving at … an under­standing, if not a liking, perhaps, of what those figures are.

“That’s the only way councillors can have confidence that the information in front of [us] stands up to scrutiny.”

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