30th September 2016
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School closure plans shelved as councillors call for government meeting

A call has been made for a council meeting with Scottish government ministers to discuss the way forward for education.

The plea by education and families vice chairman, George Smith, comes after committee members officially abandoned plans to either reduce pupil numbers at Whalsay School and Mid Yell Junior High, or close the secondary departments altogether.

The unanimous agreement needs to be approved at a special full council meeting later today.

If approved, it will pave the way for a five year moratorium on school closures in those areas.

Councillor George Smith called the report "downbeat", and urged the council to be "more ambitious as well as realistic".

George Smith says SIC representatives need a meeting with government ministers.

Mr Smith said a meeting needed to be held with the new islands minister, Humza Yousaf, as well as his predecessor, Derek Mackay, who now holds the brief as finance secretary, and education secretary John Swinney.

Mr Smith highlighted signs of changes within education, with the Scottish government indicating it would be putting more resources into schools.

But he said discussions within Holyrood around the development of regional boards raised questions for the isles.

The developments come against a backdrop of continued funding pressures for the council’s schools service.

Children’s services is under pressure to make £5 million in savings within the next five years. It is estimated that up to £735,000 could have been saved by ending secondary lessons at the island schools.

But Scottish government policy presumes against the closure of rural schools. A consultation report has highlighted a “political unwillingness” to implement any school closure proposals in Shetland’s school estate.

Mr Smith argued: “We’d be fooling ourselves if we don’t realise there are challenges ahead for education in Shetland.

“Added into the mix is the new Scottish government and their policy changes that we are hearing about. Things like regional boards and what effect that might have on our management of education.

“We have an ongoing funding issue in this council. We don’t get enough money to do what we want to do.”

He added that the service had made continual year-on-year savings in keeping with medium term financial plan.

“In my view we can’t keep on doing that.

“I think we need to be taking that challenge to the Scottish government, and asking for an urgent meeting.”

He was backed by Davie Sandison, who said a strategy was needed to develop the council’s own lobbying effort.

Chairwoman Vaila Wishart, who moved the recommendations, said curriculum changes were all “coming to a head”.

“I fully endorse George’s view that we should try to seek a meeting with ministers,” she said.

The decision to step back from closure comes after widespread opposition to changes in the school estate.

A staggering total of 97.1 per cent of responses disagreed with ending S4 classes at Whalsay, while an even higher number – 97.7 per cent – were against closing the school altogether.

In addition, 53 per cent of respondents who submitted a written response expressed an explicit preference to retain S1 to S4 provision at Whalsay School.

 

We have an ongoing funding issue in this council. We don’t get enough money to do what we want to do. GEORGE SMITH

Meanwhile, at Mid Yell, 96.4 per cent were against the idea of ending S4 provision, while 96.7 per cent opposed closure.

If implemented, the plans would have seen pupils from the isles transferring to the new Anderson High School.

Today’s meeting, described as a “rubber-stamping exercise” by Ms Wishart, came after councillors stepped back from closing primary schools at North Roe and Urafirth two years ago.

Councillors later agreed to complete the formal consultation for Mid Yell and Whalsay – paving the way for the much sought-after moratorium aimed at providing stability in the communities which have faced continued threats to their education services over the years.

Vaila Wishart – "a critical time for education"

Vaila Wishart moved to defend council officials after consultation responses attacked their integrity.

At today’s meeting, Ms Wishart said some consultation responses attacked the integrity of people working within children’s services – something she said was unacceptable.

Views frequently expressed among oral and written responses were that children’s services “lacked credibility, did not know what they were doing and could not be relied upon to provide accurate information”.

They also described the statutory consultations as “financially driven and part of a larger, ongoing plan to centralise services in and around Lerwick,” according to papers put before members.

Ms Wishart said: “In both these papers, in their responses to them, there have been a series of attacks on the integrity and professionalism of those working in children’s services which, in my view, is unfair and unacceptable because, firstly, they can’t answer and, secondly, they are always untrue.
“All the allegations are rebutted in the consultation report.”

She added her experience of working with staff in children’s services had confirmed her belief that they were “professional, honest and diligent”.

“Any suggestion to the contrary needs to be rebutted quite firmly.

“Disagreeing with proposals is fine, and councillors are fair game, but denigrating the people that are trying so hard to provide what is an excellent education service for this community are not on.”

AboutRyan Taylor

Ryan Taylor has worked as a reporter since 1995, and has been at The Shetland Times since 2007, covering a wide variety of news topics. Before then he reported for other newspapers in the Highlands, where he was raised, and in Fife, where he began his career with DC Thomson. He also has experience in broadcast journalism with Grampian Television. He has lived in Shetland since 2002, where he harbours an unhealthy interest in old cars and motorbikes.

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19 comments

  1. John Tulloch

    That’s good, unlike what we hear from elsewhere in the SIC, the education committee chair absolves officials of any blame for this fiasco. The councillors haven’t been told what to do by the officials, it’s been the other way around.

    Perhaps, however, councillors might have been better advised? No warnings were reported as coming from the department? Maybe councillors were too dictatorial here and suppressed dissent? I doubt it.

    Either way, vast tranches of time and money have been wasted and parents and families put through the emotional wringer, for years – all for nought! – on an ill-considered scheme that was doomed, politically, from the start.

    Well, somebody needs to be held accountable and who better than the education committee chair who stood for election on a school closing agenda and has fronted the school closure plan in the most resolute way possible?

    Why, Vaila Wishart, did your resignation not immediately follow the announcement of this welcome U-turn from such a disastrous policy?

    You should resign as education committee chair, today, leaving a new leader to tackle the Scottish government – Swinney and MacKay are the culprits – over education underfunding.

    Reply
    • Jack Brunton

      Such a pity that the all knowing sage of all things Shetland, Mr Tulloch, being such an expert on all things political, fiscal and now educational isn’t aware that SIC doesn’t have an “Education Committee”. One woul wonder how then Ms. Wishart can resign from something that does not exist.

      A little more education Mr. Tulloch?

      Reply
      • John Tulloch

        Mr Brunton, nit-picking over committee names won’t change the fact that the school closures plan has been an expensive fiasco, harrowing for families, which you kindly remind us has been one of Ms Wishart’s responsibilities as chairperson.

        She is a capable, courageous person – that is not in doubt – who chained herself from the outset to a disastrous policy and followed it through with great determination.

        Her policy has been a complete failure and she should now resign and make way for a new leader, preferably, Councillor Smith, to lead the essential initiative of taking the Scottish government to task over education underfunding.

      • ian tinkler

        Jacke Brunton. Ignorance is such bliss, hate to think you did not actually checked facts before spouting on in such a derogatory way . How about an apology, or is that beneath such a sage as yourself?
        Membership For: Education and Families Committee, SIC
        Vaila Wishart, Chair
        George Smith, Vice-Chair
        Andrea I Manson
        Billy Fox
        David A Sandison
        Michael W Stout
        Gary Robinson
        Gary Cleaver
        Frank A Robertson
        Peter Campbell

        http://www.shetland.gov.uk/coins/committeeMembers.asp?id=394&bodytitle=Education+and+Families+Committee

      • Jack Brunton

        On the contrary, Mr. Tinkler, you are correct Education ” and Families” careless of Mr Tulloch to omit such a significant area of this committee’s responsibility.

        Further to Mr Sim’s question, we all await Mr. Tulloch’s words of wisdom (and that of Mr. Tinkler is he has any clue) as to this problem for Shetland. I guess we may wait some time as it’s easy to critisise, more difficult to provide solutions.

      • Ali Inkster

        When you don’t have an argument, argue semantics.

      • ian tinkler

        Education and “FAMILIES”, I really find it hard to believe and adult can be so utterly puerile and pedantic! If the strength of this unpleasant comment from JB about JT comes down to the exact naming of a committee. Just how pathetic can you get? This is about the well being of our children, not a kindergarten mock and insult match!!! Nothing more needs to be said here, perhaps just adult up man..

      • Brian Smith

        The Wir UKIP Facebook site is stepping up its rhetoric. It’s worth having a look!

      • ian tinkler

        For Brian Smith’s benefit. There is no “The Wir UKIP Facebook site” however he may be a tad confused, rather like he was about Unison’s position on “State Snoopers”. Never mind Brian, your a historian and look to the past. “Wir Shetland” is more concerned about the future, sorry about that, “the times they are a changing”, the dinosaurs of the left wing are fading fast.

      • Ali Inkster

        A tad confused or just clean out of touch with Shetland (and reality) . A poll by Aberdeen university recently showed that 92% of UK fishermen were going to vote out of the EU. I’ve not spoken to one currently fishing in Shetland that will vote to remain. So unlike Holyrood/Westminster/Brussels and Brian Smith, Wir Shetland supports wir fishermen.

    • Robert Sim

      “…an ill-considered scheme that was doomed, politically, from the start.” I can’t resist asking, John, how you personally would have addressed the considerable funding gap in education that existed when this Council came to power? Oh – one rule: you are not allowed to imagine that the Scottish Government would have come to the rescue with extra funding. Let’s just stick to the scenario as it existed.

      Reply
      • John Tulloch

        Robert, what we have is a situation in which parents and families have been “put through the emotional wringer, for years – all for nought”.

        I have answered your question before, “do what is necessary but don’t attack vulnerable communities.” In the end that has happened, the schools stay open and other services have been cut to balance the budget. I am pleased to say the council has done very well at managing its finances.

        That doesn’t alter the fact that Shetland education has been underfunded versus need since 2008 by about £10Mpa – i.e. £80 million of short change!

        And it appears a campaign is now – quite rightly – going to be mounted to bring justice to Shetland’s government funding. That should have been done before the closure plan kicked off, not after it’s final whistle.

        And if the Scottish government won’t make COSLA divvy out the money fairly, they will send a powerful message to Shetlanders that autonomy is our only option.

        Our vital interests are at stake.

      • Robert Sim

        So your answer to my question, John, is: “do what is necessary but don’t attack vulnerable communities”. So what would that “necessary” have been during the life of this Council? What would you have cut to balance the education books? I am not asking that rhetorically – I really would like an answer. Ferries? I think, unless one can answer such a question, one is not in a good position to call for anyone’s resignation or again make implications about council officers.

        just to be clear, I am not in favour of school closures any more than anyone else. There are two sides to this matter – national funding and the education provision that the SIC makes. It’s a complex, difficult matter. Both sides have a part to play. It’s just too simplistic, though, to say that it’s all down to Government funding. Otherwise there is every chance we will be here again in a number of years’ time.

      • John Tulloch

        Robert,

        Please stop time-wasting.

        What I would or would not have done is irrelevant. It would not be the same as you would have done – you would have closed the schools – and others would do differently, again.

        I have answered your question, repeatedly, over the years, as stated. I’m unsure why you ask it again, I hope it’s poor memory on your part, rather than you being deliberately obtuse?

        If you want more detail then I’ve said this before, too:

        I would settle for cuts made equitably across the board that allow the schools to remain open. In the event, good sense has prevailed and that is what has happened with the result that:

        The SIC’s books are balanced and the schools remain open. Job done.

      • Jack Brunton

        So yet again, dear Mr Tulloch avoids a direct answer to Mr Sim.
        Numbers plucked out of the air £10M per year? Based on what? Emotive rhetoric, emotional wringer? Etc. A thinly veiled attempt to gain some support.
        However we still await, as previously identified, Mr Tulloch’s response to where he would find the savings.
        Maybe Mr Tinkler, can help here? No, no answers there either.

        P.S. COSLA don’t have money to divvy out, another wee mistake there John. Oops.

      • Robert Sim

        Really sorry for my timewasting, John – although what process am I holding up? This is just a media forum.

        Anyway, I am just trying to find out what knowledge lies behind your statements made with such certainty that you can call for people’s resignations and criticise SIC officials. Thanks anyway for the further detail. You say: “I would settle for cuts made equitably across the board that allow the schools to remain open. In the event, good sense has prevailed and that is what has happened with the result that:

        The SIC’s books are balanced and the schools remain open. Job done.”

        I guess therefore you are happy with what has happened to schools’ annual budgets over the last few years?

    • John Tulloch

      Jack,

      COSLA allocate SG funding (2008 Agreement) according to a “formula” which fails fully to account for actual needs, benefiting dense populations at the expense of remote/rural ones.

      My underfunding estimate is conservative versus figures from SIC political leader Robinson:

      “Gary Robinson
March 17th, 2015 10:36
I’m happy to answer John Tulloch’s questions.
      Answer to Q1. The grant that the council receives isn’t based on the Scottish average cost per pupil. What is often referred to as the cost per pupil doesn’t include all education expenditure in any council. It merely represents a basket of expenditure that’s benchmarked across local authorities.”

      Answer to Q2. Orkney receives £22.1M from the Scottish Government against expenditure of £28.6M while the Western Isles gets £27.9M against expenditure of £45.9M. This compares to Shetland receiving £29M against expenditure of £48.3M; these figures are like-for-like costs across all of education from pre-school to HE/FE.”

      That year’s education budget outturn was £39 million, following a 20 percent spending cut. The education system was showing strain and further cuts would be damaging.

      Ergo, that figure is a reasonable estimate of the ‘needs-based’ requirement. Funding allocated by COSLA (£29 million) was still 25 percent short (£10Mpa).

      Reply
  2. Odette Anderson

    Councillors in the chamber yesterday talked of how they would need to be urgent meetings with Scottish government ministers ,finance and education secratery and other bodies to discuss the way forward for education and lobby for extra funding to close the gap in the £ 5 million shortfall in the education and families budget .

    So why o why was this not the councils initial approach?

    Rather as subjecting us to a lengthy consultation process , that has probably cost more as closing the schools was supposed to save .

    Reply
    • Steven Jarmson

      Great point.
      How much has this cost saving investigation cost?

      Reply

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