Council votes to close Skerries secondary

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Skerries residents object to proposals to close the island's secondary department. Outside the town hall are (from left): John Weston, Alice Arthur, Brenda Hay, Valerie McMillan, Mellany Gorman and Julie Arthur. Photo: Dave Donaldson

Skerries residents object to proposals to close the island’s secondary department. Outside the town hall are (from left): John Weston, Alice Arthur, Brenda Hay, Valerie McMillan, Mellany Gorman and Julie Arthur. Photo: Dave Donaldson

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.

About Ryan Taylor

Ryan Taylor is a reporter at The Shetland Times

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23 comments

  1. Iain Murray

    This is very disappointing news and it shows that there is not unanimous backing for this plan. The process now shifts to Scottish Ministers, who have a period of six weeks in which to call this decision in and review it.

    Let’s keep the momentum of this petition going, and move our focus from local Councillors to National Politicians. Please continue to show voice your protest by sharing this petition to wider circles, Facebook and Twitter are very good for spreading the word.

    I have amended the petition to now focus on Michael Russell MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning for the Scottish Government – sign the petition and get this decision reversed.

    https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/shetland-islands-council-save-out-skerries-secondary-school

    Reply
  2. John Tulloch

    A Pyrric victory, if ever I saw one, I hope you’re all proud of it.

    Reply
  3. Graeme Sutherland

    So, this story came out in September.
    http://www.shetlandtimes.co.uk/2013/09/27/report-reveals-111-sic-workers-are-earning-over-50000-five-times-the-orkney-figure/

    Now, I’m not saying that some of these people are not worth £50000 but, assuming that each of those people was on the minimum of £50000, it would take reducing each person’s salary by £666 per year to keep the Skerries school open. That’s according to the BBC report that said closing the school would save around £74000 per year.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-25332126

    I’d guess that quite a few of those 111 are on well over £50000, so the money could probably be found by reducing the high earners by a bit more, to save the lower earning staff. It seems to me that the SIC are more concerned with protecting the high earners of the SIC, than they are with protecting rural Shetland.

    Reply
  4. Tim Bugler

    Shocking decision. £74,000? How much more will SIC have to pay to keep this community alive now they have half-killed it.

    Reply
  5. Sandy McDonald

    Why is 50 000 now some kind of magic number? Is there something significant that happens when someone earns over 50G?

    Reply
    • Graeme Sutherland

      The issue isn’t with people earning over £50k. The issue is that the SIC have more than 5 times the number of people on salaries over this figure than other councils in Scotland. This would suggest that there are many people getting overpaid for equivalent roles, and that there also may be a top-heavy hierarchy in the SIC that needs to be addressed.

      Reply
    • Jenny Henry

      Seeing as it’s twice or three-times what the majority of folk earn, most of us will never know… but I expect what happens is a second (or third) car, probably a 4×4, for the spouse; a second (or third) annual foreign holiday and a few trips to the mainland for gigs and shopping; fancy home improvements; clothes with ‘labels’; an iPad each for the bairns… ?

      Reply
      • Sandy McDonald

        How many of these posts are with the ports and harbours, and ferries of course? They have to pay the industry standard for these jobs or they won’t be able to retain the qualified personnel.

      • Ali Inkster

        With industry standard wages should come industry standard terms and conditions. The folks in the merchant marine who the ferry and tug men like to compare themselves to are away from home six months of the year and will miss family occasions including births and deaths, time that can never be got back, and are quite rightly compensated accordingly.

  6. ALAN SKINNER

    Democracy, Shetland style, is a constant disappointment! Do we honestly believe that this decision is the right one for the long-term benefit of Shetland?

    Alan Skinner
    New House
    Cullivoe
    Yell

    Reply
  7. Raymond Smith, Kirkwall

    Why were the 2 council members missing???

    Cull the salaries from the top 100/150 and save a lot more than 74K

    Reply
  8. David Spence

    I suspect the SIC’s argument and justification for having so many people of £50 k a year salary is to attract the best people for the job (as they see it) from mainland Scotland/Britain and have the ability to keep these people with attractive over the odds salaries as an incentive and reward for their valuable services they provide for the Council………….which most people, I would say, is not deserving of such a high salary, despite Shetlands location and isolation from the rest of the UK.

    I also suspect that huge savings could be made by changing the way and manner the Councillors claim expenses, and for those expenses to be scrutinized more in terms of their claims. I can remember a certain Councillor claiming upto £36,000 a year in expenses and yet they did not even leave the island they were representing………nobody questioned the validity of this claims. Since then, the Councillor has resigned from their post without any investigation being warranted.

    There was also the carry on with the northern ferries and how the personnel operating the ferries are still the highest paid in the whole of Britain (taking into account other island communities…Orkney, Hebrides, Isle of Man etc etc). Why is this allowed?

    I am pretty sure if the Council wanted to make in-house savings and keep open the schools they are closing, they could quite easily do it with a little cut here and there on the salaries they are paying some of their employee’s.

    Reply
  9. John Anderson

    The Shetland Times did a follow up on the £50,000 salary story which regretably few people seem to have paid attention to. Analysis showed that a large proportion of the high salaries were indeed ports and harbours posts that don’t have to be paid by comparable authorities. Some are also head teachers, of which we have more due to our high number of schools. Strip this out and Shetland has no more high earners than comparable authorities.

    This does not mean there could not be some more saved on salaries or allowances. And it is time we had some more careful pruning before looking at more damaging cuts to services and economic development, but the knee-jerk comments on folk getting due recompense for high-level jobs are jealous and uninformed.

    Reply
  10. George Gillon

    It would only take one high earner to be made obsolete, to enable the savings to be made. I am sure the SIC could wangle that one nae bother, with their skills in wheeling and dealing and casino style management of the public purse, which they have shown great aptitude in over the past few years! Sad day for Shetland indeed, shame on you…

    Reply
  11. Charles White

    People should be looking at the white elephant at the far end of Scalloway. Top heavy management structure with all of them being overpaid. Need an extra £120k per year to keep a secondary school open? All you have to do is get rid of two staff at the Fisheries College.

    Reply
    • Sandy McDonald

      Aye Charles, lets just sack two folk – but only if you agree to donate all YOUR salary this year to your local school… Didn’t think so.

      Reply
    • Brian Smith

      Charles is one of the most generous and public-spirited people I know. I bet he’s done it already.

      Reply
  12. Stewart Mac

    John,

    “Jealous and uninformed”? i think not – According to the latest Scottish Government statistics available, and taking account of “Ports and Harbours” Shetland STILL has the highest percentage employed in the local authority in the whole of Scotland, bar none. So whats the reason for that then? We dont have 300 schools to account for the difference and thats before the closures start.

    Dont even go there with “ports and harbours” – Thats one department where the wage bill is all but indefensible compared with any other local authority (providing similar services) in the land.

    Jealous and uninformed?

    Certainly not jealous, good on them for getting away with it for so long but now that crunch services are going (like education and welfare) the spotlight will undoubtedly fall on those memebers of staff paid in far excess of their production value. Unless of course you can somehow justify keeping officials in post to preside over depleated services to the community?

    uninformed? well thats a matter of opinion, too subjective for true debate but i certainly dont think so.

    Reply
  13. Charles White

    Thank you Brian. Sandy in my 37 years of working and paying tax I have given well over 2 years salary to charity. The point I make is that money is being wasted and spent in areas which no one can consider a priority over essential services like education and social care. It is a particular Shetland affliction that I have noticed since moving here from Orkney that there are so many people who think the council owes them a living. Tough Times Tough Choices which certainly includes assessing people’s worth and contribution and making the decision to get rid of them. The money saved on wages can then be spent on something more worthwhile.

    Reply
    • Sandy McDonald

      My beef with your comment Charles is your blunt idea that sacking 2 folk will stop a school closure – comments like this are not helpful, especially if you are someone who is already worried about loosing your job. I suppose the money saved on the wages will pay for the work of the social department and job seekers allowance whilst those 2 folk look for new jobs…

      Reply
      • Johan Adamson

        It is sad that it comes down to justifying what you do for a career or a job in this day and age. How is anyone more use to society than anyone else? But we need to see that the public sector are trying to be efficient and survive with less money and less people because the private sector is like that, it wouldnt survive with such overspending; and we need to see that they are prioritising the right things, like education.

        It is also sad and draconian in this day and age also to take these few isles bairns away at 11, and only let them home once a month. I knew it happenened in the hostels in the 80s and I knew they were very lonely, but with hindsight I now know it just isnt right at all and we need a better solution.

  14. John Tulloch

    Whether we agree or disagree with the presence of unelected religious representatives on the Education Committee the fact remains that the Skerries closure proposal would never have reached the full council had the two unelected representatives not been present at the Education Committee meeting, last Tuesday.

    Reply
  15. John Tulloch

    I must confess, I was surprised Allan Wishart voted for closure of Skerries secondary, given that Bressay Primary is in the firing line for closure with only three pupils. You’d think he’d be depending on solidarity from the North Isles councillors?

    Of course, it may not come to that. Being a councillor, he may have wind of a possible delay in the Bressay closure, pending further consultation with the new Bressay lobby group?

    “Yes, Councillor!”

    Reply

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