By RYAN TAYLOR
SHETLAND Islands Council may attempt to close schools in rural areas ahead of a new government policy aimed at saving them, according to community leaders in Yell.
They say the SIC’s forthcoming blueprint for education could put primary schools at risk of closure.
Chairman of Cullivoe Primary School’s parent council, Phil Kennerley, highlighted a report before last month’s services committee which said Shetland should consider its response to government legislation against giving schools the axe.
He added councillors had been advised future class sizes should number no fewer than 20 pupils – a figure in excess of many rural school rolls.
Mr Kennerley’s comments have been backed by North Isles councillor Laura Baisley, who says the blueprint offers nothing for schools in the isles.
He said the government paper, “Safeguarding our rural schools and improving school consultation procedures,” opposes closing schools unless it can benefit childrens’ education.
But he said the council has interpreted this to mean it should close some schools in the meantime before future legislation prevents it from doing so.
“The government is bringing out legislation to stop local authorities from closing small schools,” he said.
“Rather than close them a local authority should invest in rural communities to get them back up again.
“The school service read the report, and their conclusion was to shut schools now, ‘or we won’t be able to in future’.”
He highlighted the report before the services committee which concluded: “Any presumption against closure could tie the hands of future councils with regard to changing the overall scheme of provision, especially in the light of the blueprint for education.
That blueprint was given the go ahead by councillors when they agreed to provide the best quality of education while examining all schools for investment and for savings.
But Mr Kennerley said the blueprint was a “white cover” for trying to close schools.
“All the councillors were fed up not knowing anything about the blueprint,” he said.
“They had a seminar in Lerwick two to three weeks ago to give them an overview of the blueprint and what was happening.
“The only important thing they found out about it was that the council were asked to make 20 pupils a minimum class size for any primaries.”
Attending that meeting was councillor Baisley, who said she was left unimpressed with what the blueprint had to offer, although she admitted having to leave early to attend a prior engagement.
“I was hoping to hear great things about how information technology could be used in schools, but there was nothing in the power-point hand outs they gave us that indicated anything positive.”
She added the blueprint threw up too many questions before the future of education in the isles could be settled on, and said the consultation period before its conclusions are drawn up was far too short.
“I’m not convinced something as important as the future plans for education in Shetland can be decided between now and October, when important parties like parents’ councils and teachers are usually on holiday from now until September,” she said.
“It takes a while for a report to be drafted and approved, after all.”
Ms Baisley said she did not know how all classes could be run with a minimum of 20 pupils, but said that was highlighted as a “matter that needed to be considered” in one of her hand outs at the meeting.
She added she had received an email from EIS Shetland representative Bernie Cranie, who said closing schools would be difficult to bring about because of the government’s anti-closure stand.
Fellow councillor Robert Henderson said the blueprint was only a consultative matter, but added the 20 pupil ruling was unrealistic.
“In all the outlying schools it’s less than 20 pupils. If they threaten to close them all hell is going to break loose,” he said.
School provision in Yell has been something of a hot potato for some time, with parents divided over a controversial shared head teacher pilot scheme between Cullivoe Primary and Mid Yell Junior High, which began two years ago.
Mid Yell parents called for councillors to to drop the project at last month’s services committee meeting.
Instead, the council agreed to defer a decision until the details of the blueprint come to light.
Ms Baisley later failed in a bid to persuade members to reconsider their deferral.
She has since been told shared headship will not be heard again until October, despite earlier assurances it could be discussed this month.
“If the majority of parents in Yell had their wishes cast aside then what chances are there of any consultation having effect?” she said.
Mr Kennerley said the majority of parents in Cullivoe had seen shared headship as “a preferred option”, while their counterparts in Mid Yell were largely against the move.
But he denied a rift was brewing in Yell over the issue, and said Cullivoe parents were “not making a fuss over it”, and that it was “not a big issue”.
Chairman of Yell Community Council Daniel Thompson said it was important there was no “conflict” between communities in the island.
“We, as a community council, were contacted by one person who sent us an email,” he said.
“What that person was saying was there was a conflict, and that is the last thing we want.
“Nearly all the teachers in Mid Yell weren’t in favour of shared headship. If the teachers are not happy then that must reflect in the bairns’ education.”
Chairman of the services committee, Gussie Angus, said the blueprint had been designed to examine the future of education in Shetland.
He denied it was deliberately setting out to close schools down.
“It’s far too early to suggest that the blueprint for education is looking at school closures,” he said.
“The blueprint has been set out to look at a way forward for education – and that is all education, from the early years right up to further education, and includes vocational education as well.
“It is what it is. It’s a blueprint – a road map of where we want to go to, and I’m not prepared to comment on closure. There has never been any decision to close any school in Shetland.”
Adding the council had “engaged with the government” on the blueprint, he said the HMI had “approved” of what education chiefs were trying to do.
He also refuted claims class sizes would have to run to no fewer than 20 pupils.
“There are statutory requirements for class sizes. The Scottish government said they expect local authorities to work towards minimum class sizes of 18 for classes one and two. We’ve had advice that the optimum size for a small school is 20, but we simply can’t get there with the remoter islands.”