Highlands and Islands MSP urges rethink over school closure plans
Highlands and Islands MSP Mike MacKenzie wants chief executive of Shetland Islands Council Mark Boden to think again about possible school closures in the isles.
Mr MacKenzie sent an open letter to the council chief last month, expressing a number of concerns from parents over the re-organisation plans for education.
Today he met with Mr Boden to discuss the matter further – to see what could be done by the council to improve the consultation process, and ensure the council shares the appropriate information so parents feel properly consulted.
Mr MacKenzie said he would ask for a “longer-term” view of Shetland to be considered.
He said he realised the SIC had gone through a “very difficult time” with its budgets but said Shetland had “a very bright future”.
He spoke about the “renaissance” in the oil and gas industry and the potential for renewable energy in the isles.
In the next 10 years there would be potentially 3,000 jobs available through renewable energy, Mr MacKenzie said.
As employment levels in the isles are high, “that implies 3,000 new people coming to Shetland, and their families,” said Mr MacKenzie .
“Even if half of that’s realised over the next decade that’s a big increase in population. Those people that move here from other parts of the country have got a vision of coming to live in a rural community and part of what Shetland has to offer is very high-quality education.
“So I would think very carefully before proposing to close down those small schools that do offer very high-quality education.”
Mr MacKenzie argued statistics “overwhelmingly suggest” small rural schools do much better in terms of educational outcomes than the bigger ones.
He said the case for closing schools could only be made if it was an attempt to improve educational outcomes.
But often the underlying factor is the need to save money, he said.
“Legislation specifically rules that out and can’t be your principal aim in approaching school closures”.
The SIC is looking to save more than £3 million through its schools reconfiguration project. This week proposals to close two schools in Northmavine – Urafirth primary and nursery and North Roe primary saving £190,000 -were up for discussion – with heated discussions between councillors and the public.
However Mr MacKenzie said the council would receive more money through a higher population in the isles in future, and there was more government money per pupil for smaller schools with fewer than 70 children on the roll.
Transport costs would also be an added expense if rural schools closed, he said.
He said he would like to see the council look at other alternatives to save the money and school closures should be “the final resort”.
“Of course there will be alternatives and I think maybe when the council realise the depth of concern that people have, and the number of people that share those concerns across the community, then it behoves them to maybe think again, have a look, see if you can sharpen your pencil.
“Be very sure that any savings you think you might realise in the proposed closures are actually real savings to be made and then look very carefully to see if you can find other means of achieving the same kind of savings.”
Mr MacKenzie said the full economic implications of closing a school also had to be considered, as sometimes when you close a school “you shut down the area”, he said.
He spoke of other options and “proactive planning” – such as whether houses could be built in the area to improve the school roll.
Councillors should take a “broader, more holistic view”, he added.
Things are already beginning to look up for the council, said Mr MacKenzie, with progress on the housing debt issue and the benefits of the oil and gas industry.
“There’s room maybe not to save every school, but there’s room maybe to approach this with a more optimistic attitude and maybe accommodate the views and needs of parents in a way that might not have been possible a year ago.”
The Shetland Times tried to contact Mr Boden following the meeting but he was unavailable to comment.