Council votes to close Skerries secondary
The council will move to shut Skerries secondary department next year following a casting vote by convener Malcolm Bell in the town hall today.
Members at the full council were tied 10-10 over whether lessons in the tiny secondary should be brought to a close.
Chairwoman of education and families committee Vaila Wishart had moved recommendations to close the small unit, which forms part of the primary school building.
But North Isles member Steven Coutts urged members to consider launching a consultation process into whether an S1-S2 school could be retained in the isle.
Mr Bell’s casting vote means youngsters in Skerries will have their lessons in the Anderson High School in Lerwick from next August, and will stay in the hostel – unless the closure decision is called in beforehand by Scottish education minister, Mike Russell.
The tied vote followed a two and a half hour debate over the balance between the educational experiences and the prospect of economic damage some fear the closure will bring about.
The discussion was watched via video link by concerned Skerries residents from upstairs in the town hall and from the isle itself.
At regular intervals the chamber was filled with the sound of feet stamping on the floor upstairs, as Skerries folk sought to make their feelings clear.
It followed yesterday’s casting vote from Ms Wishart after a lengthy debate at the education and families meeting, where another North Isles member – Gary Cleaver – had unsuccessfully urged members to consider turning Skerries into an S1-S2 school, rather than closing it outright.
Kicking off the debate in today’s meeting Ms Wishart said moving children to the Anderson High would give them a better broad general education.
She added it would afford children access to a larger peer group of youngsters, and would assist in their health and wellbeing by enabling youngsters to participate in sporting activities.
“I don’t buy the idea that children in Skerries are less resilient than children in other remote isles. Education has to be a priority if children are going to reach their true potential.”
Her comments came after an address by director of children’s services, Helen Budge, who told councillors closing the secondary would help the department achieve its aim of offering a high standard of education while also offering best value.
The council says closing the secondary will save the authority £73,473 per annum, once an escort service is provided to accompany children on the ferry to and from the Mainland.
However, Mr Coutts said there was a strong need to consider the impact closing the school would have on the community.
He insisted the council had not sought a “viable alternative” to closure, and urged members to back his alternative proposal.
“There’s no doubt there could be challenges, but I’d contend these challenges could be overcome.”
He questioned how closing Skerries would tie in with a commitment in the SIC’s corporate plan to maintain a working age population throughout the isles.
Much of today’s focus was on a report covering the possible economic impact on Skerries if the secondary unit was closed. One line of the report stated that the effect “could be severe”.
“We have got the socio-economic impact assessment,” added Mr Coutts. “The information is all there. We need to read it, acknowledge it and listen to it.”
He was concerned about how elderly people in Skerries might be cared for in their own homes if younger people move away.
For his part, Mr Cleaver said members should not be swayed by the argument that the best level of education can only be delivered in larger schools.
The third North Isles member, Robert Henderson, said the £5.1 million gross contribution which is pumped into the economy from Skerries’ 70-strong population circulated in the Shetland economy, specifically into businesses in Lerwick and Scalloway.
“I’d like to ask all members here if they could meet Skerries folk, look them in the eye and say, ‘sorry, your children are not worth the same as other bairns in Shetland’.”
But Jonathan Wills said plenty of capital investment had been spent by the council in Skerries, including £300,000 to open a new “Rolls Royce” harbour development.
The Anderson High, he said, was “superior to Eton”.
Taking up Mr Henderson’s challenge he insisted: “I’ll look everybody in Skerries in the eye and list the things this council has paid for.”
Quality improvement officer, Audrey Edwards, repeatedly stressed that Skerries’ minuscule pupil numbers made an S1-S2 school difficult to stack up.
Political leader Gary Robinson said education would suffer as a result of Skerries offering lessons to S1-S2 pupils. That, he said, would “condemn” it at times to be a one pupil secondary.
“The economic impact says there could be a negative impact for Skerries. But we’ve heard many communities thrive without a secondary school, and I believe Skerries can thrive too, if it wants to.”
Education and families vice-chairman, George Smith, last month launched a bid for closure-threatened Aith and Sandwick junior highs to be allowed to continue teaching S1 and S2 classes.
He did not believe the same solution would work for Skerries. But he called for flexibility in the ferry service to allow pupils the maximum amount of time in their community at the weekends.
The decision to close was meant to have been taken in October. But it was delayed at the 11th hour and an extended consultation period was launched after a technical glitch meant some consultation responses were unaccounted for.
Mrs Budge said, taking the further consultation into account, 74 per cent of respondents disagreed with the proposal. Sixteen per cent agreed and 10 per cent did not state an opinion. However councillors were told today none of the 16 per cent who agreed with the plans were resident in the isle.
Backing Ms Wishart’s motion to close were: Malcolm Bell, Gary Robinson, Vaila Wishart, George Smith, Allison Duncan, Allan Wishart, Cecil Smith, David Sandison, Jonathan Wills and Drew Ratter.
Those in favour of the alternative proposed by Mr Coutts were: Gary Cleaver, Steven Coutts, Robert Henderson, Peter Campbell, Frank Robertson, Andrea Manson, Michael Stout, Billy Fox, Theo Smith and Mark Burgess.
It remains unclear how the vote would have gone if councillors Alistair Cooper and Amanda Westlake had been present for the vote.
For full coverage of the debate and reaction to the decision see Friday’s Shetland Times.