By JOHN ROBERTSON
COUNCILLORS are set to face greater pressure than ever before to shut rural schools because Shetland’s expensive education service can no longer be afforded in the current economic crisis, according to a senior councillor.
Services chairman Gussie Angus warned this week the community could no longer “have it all”, leaving a stark choice: cut schools or care for the elderly or ferries.
The big debate looming early next year over the so-called blueprint for education in Shetland was always going to be fraught, with the council and the community arguing over how to tackle rising costs, plummeting school rolls and major changes in Scottish education.
Now the evaporation of millions of pounds of Shetland’s oil savings through losses on the stock markets makes big decisions unavoidable and urgent, Mr Angus maintains.
“We need to look at the whole schools estate as a matter of some urgency and take decisions,” he said. “We can’t go on taking money out of the reserves. Any semi-numerate housewife will be able to tell you that something has got to give.”
He said a repeat of the previous repeated failures by councillors to cut the £38 million education spend would not cause a cash crisis for the present council because it got an increased grant from the government but its successors beyond 2012 would be left with a grim legacy. “The next council will be really struggling and the one after that, on day one, they’ll be switching off lights because the money will be running out.”
He said planning had to be done now to avoid that scenario. “It’s probably the last opportunity that we will have to do this in a planned fashion because there will be a financial crisis before long if we don’t.”
The Lerwick South councillor has effectively fired the first big salvo in the forthcoming debate which will eventually come to a head when councillors sit down at a special meeting on 12th February to consider officials’ recommendations for action to improve and streamline the education service.
Nerves are already fraying in communities like Sandness and Unst where primary schools have been saved in the past during three previous reviews. SIC education chiefs were accused this week of having a hidden agenda in the current consultation with the process condemned by some as cynically designed to trick people into supporting school closures.
The schools service is currently seeking views to feed into its blueprint to overhaul Shetland’s network of 33 schools and how children will be taught in them over the next 10 years. Uppermost in many people’s minds is the council’s still-unresolved mission to shut small schools to save money, address the long-term decline in school rolls and improve the educational experience.
Rolls are predicted to fall by up to 30 per cent in some areas within a decade. The picture is very bleak in Fetlar where the primary has just two pupils left and could close anyway in 2010. Sandness primary has just five pupils. Uyeasound primary has nine while in Yell the primary in Cullivoe has 15 and in Burravoe 14. In Bressay the primary has only 20 children.
Mr Angus said advice given to the council by Neil Galbraith, the temporary head of education who reviewed the system in Shetland before he left in 2006, was that schools with fewer than 20 pupils were unsuitable educationally and that junior high schools were an outmoded concept.
“What the education service is saying is that they could deliver a much better service much more cost-effectively than is being done at the present time. They would deliver better quality education all around if they didn’t have to spend money on keeping what they regard as uneconomic schools with less than 20 pupils.”
For Baltasound Junior High it also sounds bad news with just 26 pupils left in its secondary department. Mr Angus said: “What the education service is saying is that’s not best use of resources. If they think it’s necessary to sustain the community then so be it, we carry on and we do it. But we do think that we could offer the parents a better educational opportunity in a bigger school with a bigger peer group.” That means ferrying them to Mid Yell which has 39 secondary pupils.
Mr Angus said school rolls in Lerwick alone had fallen by 250 since the last review of education even despite the number of country pupils being brought into town primaries. He said there were nearly 80 non-Lerwick children at Bell’s Brae and Sound schools as a result of placing requests by parents. “There is a substantial number of parents that prefer to take their bairns into primary school in Lerwick. Not every parent wants to send their bairns to a small country school.”
He said the same attitude affected Scalloway Junior High School. “Relatively few of the secondary pupils within the Scalloway secondary school catchment area opt to go to Scalloway. As far as I’m aware the majority of them opt to come to Lerwick.” He said he did not know the reasons why.
Asked if he was advocating school closures, he said: “With the school rolls falling the way they are and the budget deficit we’re facing, we have to plan for the future – that’s what this blueprint exercise is all about. At the end of the day if folk say they want to keep all these schools open and that’s what the council agrees then that’s what will happen then there will have to be money taken from elsewhere to do that.”
Of course, the SIC is meant to be in the game of keeping remote areas alive and trying to discourage the relentless population drift towards Lerwick and the centre. But Mr Angus does not accept that closing small schools damages remote parts. “In education terms, if you look at the areas where they have consolidated schools – like Dunrossness where there was five schools that shut – and Whiteness where they merged with Weisdale – they’ve been very successful. Wherever schools have been consolidated they’ve been very successful and there’s no thought that the periphery is going to get neglected in this – what we’re trying to do is keep a sustainable, viable future for the periphery but ultimately schools will shut themselves.”
A central part of the blueprint consultation process which has provoked anger, particularly where schools are vulnerable to possible closure, is the blue three-page questionnaire sent out to all homes in Shetland and also available online. Some of the 11 questions are difficult for non-experts to answer and people are not given the option of a neutral or “don’t know” answer.
In Sandness, there is particular concern about the question: A minimum pupil roll of 20 allows for the most effective educational service delivery? One view is that the question, or more accurately, statement, is loaded to persuade the majority of Shetland people to agree and the responses will then be used to bulldoze through the closure of small primaries in the Mainland or the main isles, including Sandness. In its advice leaflet about the questionnaire the council states: “The report [to councillors] will outline the majority feelings across Shetland.”
Alan Robertson of the Sandness Community Action Group accused the council of having a hidden agenda and manipulating people to get the answers it wants. In a letter to Our Readers’ Views he asked if anyone else was “flabbergasted at the inappropriate wording” of the form. He said people who attended the meetings were left feeling “tricked, gagged and powerless”.
Another Sandness man, Garry Jamieson, who is not a parent but believes the community’s future depends on the school surviving, said this week he believed many small communities were worried about the council’s real motives, which could be compiling evidence that the majority of people in Shetland wanted to close small schools. He said he was convinced the exercise had been composed in a very calculated fashion to create statistics that did not look good for small communities and their schools.
“There is grave concern what the hidden agenda behind this is. It’s not being done fair. We feel it’s very sneaky, very dodgy, very strange.”
He said there was some concern about the legality of the questionnaire for which public bodies are not allowed leading questions and must include neutral options like “don’t know”. People have to give their names when expressing their views and anonymous contributions will not count. There is also concern about the way pupils were made to fill in simplified versions of the forms when the education department officials visited the classrooms.
There has also been outspoken criticism by anonymous contributors to the online discussion forum Shetlink, including disapproval of the framing of the questions and several detailed pieces from people who had attended consultation meetings, essentially dismissing the process as biased, incompetent and a complete waste of time and money.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott is keeping a close eye on the process and has had constituents calling for cutbacks because of the financial crisis. However, more had been expressing concern that their schools might be targeted for closure. But he said: “The biggest concern that exists is that parents, pupils and schools are put through another consultation exercise on the provision of education across Shetland and not many people have much faith that anything will happen. The overriding view I’ve had across Shetland was that people are really frustrated . . . and they don’t believe members will take any decisions.”
Mr Angus, who will control the meeting at which decisions are made, said he was unaware of the controversy over the consultation and was adamant there was no hidden agenda. “I thought the consultation process had been well received,” he said.
SIC executive director of education and social care Hazel Sutherland admitted issues had been raised to do with the wording of the questionnaires and some of the questions which seemed to lead people in a certain direction. However, she did not accept that mistakes had been made and explained that some people had chosen not to answer some of the questions and simply wrote their views instead, which was perfectly acceptable.
She assured people it was not simply a process designed to gather numbers in support or against particular options and was only the beginning of a process.
“The number-crunching aspect of it is less relevant for us in terms of how we take this forward. The fact that X number of folk said this, or another, gives us a feel for what the community is thinking but we have to overlay that with what is the best educational model and then what is an affordable model for Shetland so it should not be the only thing that drives how we make the changes.”
The blueprint consultation is taking place against a background of new government ideas including more pre-school education, plans for a curriculum for excellence and the possible scrapping of standard grades. According to Mr Angus a government proposal that local authorities should presume against closing rural schools will not apply in Shetland because no schools fit the required criteria.
The questionnaires are due back by next Friday. A series of public meetings has been held around the isles to back it up, due to end today in Foula.