Sounding Off by Vaila Wishart
SIC education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart gives her personal view of the issues surrounding the Sandwick consultation, the need to make savings without compromising the quality of education, and the possible way forward.
Shetland is different from other councils. It has continued with a junior high school system when most other councils changed their systems to mainly all-through schools 30 or 40 years ago.
There are seven secondary schools in Shetland catering for fewer than 1,500 secondary pupils. The roll of the Anderson High School is 878; Brae 190; Aith 86; Whalsay 52; Mid Yell 42; Sandwick 151; and Baltasound 19. So there are five junior high schools for fewer than 350 pupils, which is the main reason that the cost per secondary pupil is just under £14,000, more than double the national average.
The Western Isles, with a bigger population than Shetland, has four sixth-year schools and one second year with a cost per pupil of £9,471. Orkney has a smaller school population with two sixth-year schools and three fourth-year. Their cost per pupil is £9,468.
The Blueprint for Education was commissioned in 2007 because it was recognised that if Shetland could reduce its pupil costs to match Eilean Siar it would save more than £4.8 million. The blueprint’s aim was to provide the best quality of educational opportunities and learning environment for all pupils as well as taking the opportunity to make savings to bring budgets to a sustainable level.
Since then we have had endless rounds of consultations, proposals, revisals of proposals and debate. The strategy report produced in November last year made clear the “danger of elected members continually seeking new reports and analyses, and the eventual undercutting of the service’s ability to perform its core function”.
Yet we continue to go to consultation, back off, revise, come back to council, amend, ad infinitum and continually undermine the service. We also wear people out with all the consultations.
Last November it was agreed that our strategy should be to consult on S1-S2 for the junior highs. Now it appears that S1-S3 is back in favour.
Those who argued against it say that the problem of prior learning in S3 has been resolved and so this option is viable after all. And it may be that many of those who opposed S1-S3 during the informal consultation last year believed that if they continued to object to any change councillors would eventually back off.
However, it must be clear now to all but the most die-hard opponents of change to the junior high school system that S1-S4 is no longer viable because of the way the curriculum is being provided: three years of broad general education followed by a senior phase of three years.
So if the case has not been made for S1-S2, then S1-S3 should again be considered for the isles and S1-S3 or closure considered for the mainland junior highs. Baltasound, with a pupil roll of 19 and some classes with only one pupil in them, should be considered again for closure.
We need to move on. I am optimistic that this council is not going to follow the behaviour of previous councils by taking fright and backing off from making tough decisions halfway through the term, because as well as representing the opinions of people in our wards, we are all signed up to the medium term financial plan and have to look at the bigger picture. The choices get tougher as the options narrow.
Meanwhile, the Shetland Learning Partnership project is getting under way. This exciting development will involve closer collaboration with the colleges and with employers. The plans are already well developed and by next year it should be possible to start offering the opportunity for pupils in their senior phase to take an HNC as well as their other qualifications.
If we stick to S1-S4 in the junior highs we would be unable to offer this to all pupils. It is planned to align timetabling across both high schools and the further education sector, and align the curriculum model at all secondary schools (S1-S3) so pupils will have similar opportunities regardless of where they receive their broad general education. If we can’t pursue this we are doing our young people a disservice and will be in danger of creating a two-tier system.
This whole argument is about quality of education. I will list below the things which will be cut if we don’t reconfigure the school estate, but the most important thing to remember is that we will have to continue cutting back on resources in all our schools, primary and secondary, if we don’t reconfigure the secondary school estate.
So far the primaries have taken a big hit: their resources and staffing have been squeezed until the pips squeak. Ask any teacher. If this carries on, at some point quality is going to suffer.
These are areas where savings have already been made:
* reduced expenditure on in-service training;
* reduced number of central staff;
* reduced money available for supply;
* reduced money for CPD [continuing professional development];
* end of knitting instruction;
* charges for instrumental instruction;
* increased charges for school meals;
* reduced operating costs in schools, particularly resources for learning materials and equipment;
* move to national staffing levels in primaries;
* reduced teaching staff in secondary;
* reduced catering and cleaning staff;
* reduced teacher input in nursery;
* more efficient use of resources for ASN;
* reduced opportunities for music instruction;
* reduced honorariums for parent council clerks;
* reduced school building maintenance;
* reduced youth services.
And these are the cuts that will have to be made in order to keep the secondary school estate as it is “and” meet the medium term financial plan:
For savings of £500,000 –
* further reductions in catering and cleaning;
* further savings from ASN;
* a review of janitors’ duties;
* the end of out-of-school clubs.
For savings of £1 million –
* further reduction in principal teachers, secondary staff, central staff,
* depute head teachers teaching half the week,
* composite class for Baltasound.
For savings of £1.5 million –
* further primary school closures in addition to those in the blueprint.
For savings of £2 million –
* end swimming instruction; end instrumental music instruction.
For savings of £2.5 million –
* remove all school operating budgets, e.g. no learning materials;
* reduce the subject choices for secondary education.
So the key points are these:
1.The Curriculum for Excellence cannot work in the current configuration of junior high schools.
2.The council cannot afford to sustain the current model of education.
3.By keeping all the schools open we could create a second rate education service.
4.Transitions during secondary should not happen, but if they have to they should take place before the senior phase begins.
5.We will serve no-one well by focusing on keeping schools open instead of concentrating on education.
6.Whalsay and Mid Yell should definitely stay open from S1-S3 for geographical reasons.