Big challenges await next council warns outgoing education chairwoman
Outgoing councillor Vaila Wishart has highlighted major challenges for the next council as it prepares to deliver services for young people, in her closing statement as chairwoman of education and families.
But she insists the current authority has achieved much – despite having an “ever reducing pot of money” at its disposal.
Ms Wishart, who is standing down at the May elections as a Shetland Central member, voiced disappointment that education was “not the first priority” among some parents and communities.
Early in its term, this council was characterised by consultations on school closure proposals amid arguments that a reduced “schools estate” would help improve the overall standard of education.
However, many parents made their views plain during consultations that they wished schools to remain open.
Speaking during the final education and families committee meeting of this council ahead of the local authority elections, Ms Wishart said: “We … had a number of consultations on the school estate.
“I was disappointed to discover during some of them that education was not the first priority for our young folk among some parents and communities, so educational arguments fell on stony ground.
“But I guess that is the social climate we are living in.”
Ms Wishart said children’s services had made “important steps forward” during the life of the current council.
She said attainment levels had remained high, even though children’s services had to shed more than £7 million in the last five years.
She counted developments in the Learning Partnership as a major tool in helping provide young people with vocational skills.
“A particular thanks goes to Sandra Laurenson for her work in getting this success story off the ground and it is now being held up as a model for other authorities.”
She added: “According to the latest Education Scotland briefing on Shetland, this is still a high-performing authority.
“As far as literacy and numeracy is concerned, for the fifth year in succession performance at SCQF level four was much greater than the national comparator.
“So, despite the money that has had to come out of our budget, standards remain high. But this cannot continue and the challenge for the next council will be how to keep our attainment levels high with an ever-reducing pot of money.”
She pointed to the delivery of extra early learning and childcare hours and increased provision for looked after children as examples of “other challenges” the new council will face.
Her comments came after members were told plans for a new children’s home in Tingwall were progressing, with the proposals working their way through the planning process.
“I’m sure none of us want to see children being sent away to the mainland,” she said.
Another major milestone for the authority has been the development of the new Anderson High School and hall of residence, both of which are progressing on time and on budget towards a completion date this year.
Ms Wishart said the high school’s development to near-completion stage was down to the “tenacity” of children’s services director, Helen Budge.
“At the beginning of this build there was a lot of scepticism, but that seems to have faded away.
“This will offer pupils a modern learning environment and hopefully enhance their experience of school.”
She said collaboration with Orkney and the Western Isles had grown stronger.
“Sharing information between the three authorities has allowed projects to go ahead which would have been difficult to undertake separately.”
And she also voiced support and thanks for staff at children’s services.
“Combined with dedicated teaching staff, the good work will continue.”
“So, despite the money that has had to come out of our budget, standards remain high. But this cannot continue and the challenge for the next council will be how to keep our attainment levels high with an ever-reducing pot of money.” VAILA WISHART
Ms Wishart concluded: “I would like to say a particular thank you to the director of children’s services, Helen Budge. We have not always agreed, but have managed an open and honest relationship and she has led her teams through some very difficult times, but has remained stoical in the face of both professional and personal hardship.”
• The new Anderson High School has received renewed praise by education and families member, Frank Robertson.
The West Side councillor, who has experience in architecture, said he was initially “sceptical” about the chances of completing the contract on time. But experience had proved him wrong, and he described the project as “fantastic”.
Today’s education and families committee meeting heard work on completing the £56 million budget was on time, and on budget, with the project rapidly moving towards its completion date of September this year.
Mr Robertson added it was now exactly 24 years since he had recommended a new high school at the Clickimin – “and it’s there, or nearly there, now,” he added.