By NEIL RIDDELL
“Here we go again,” remarked vice-convener Josie Simpson, succinctly summarising how those on both sides of the argument felt at the start of the last debate on whether to close rural schools in December 2007.
Just over a year down the line, we have reached the end of the latest consultation exercise on the future of education in Shetland, prompting another round of criticism from the rural populace and soon councillors will once again have to consider whether to bite the deeply unpopular bullet and initiate plans to close schools to help make the books balance.
At the start of this decade, the SIC launched the “best value” review which recommended closing the tiny secondary department in Skerries along with primary schools at Uyeasound in Unst, Cullivoe and Burravoe in Yell and Olnafirth and Sandness in the Mainland. Those closures would have saved the SIC more than half a million pounds from its annual revenue budget, but councillors caved in amid protests from parents in rural areas and scrapped plans to close the schools.
That decision was heavily criticised by Audit Scotland, which branded the four-year exercise a waste of time and money and suggested that certain councillors were too parochial and only interested in their own back yards. It is widely believed that Peter Malcolmson’s failure to win re-election to the council in 2003 came as a result of his decision to back controversial plans to close Quarff Primary School, which was in his own ward.
That school did eventually close in May 2004 when, after the departure of its head teacher, the SIC was unable to fill the vacancy. Pupils were transferred to the primary school in Cunningsburgh and, after initially bitterly opposing any move towards closure, Quarff parents eventually agreed that the school would have to be shut.
But the lesson that voting for closure was tantamount to committing electoral suicide has not been lost on many councillors in vulnerable areas since, and some observers hold the view that an unspoken mantra of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” has been in operation among some members in recent years.
The last major programme of closures took place in the South Mainland some 40 years ago, when schools at Levenwick, Bigton, Virkie, Quendale and Boddam were shut and provision was centralised in the newly-built Dunrossness Primary School, which subsequent reports suggest have not had a detrimental impact on the five communities left without a school. In relation to proposals to close schools elsewhere on the Mainland and in Yell, protesters have asserted that the distances pupils would be asked to travel are much greater.
In 2006, interim education chief Neil Galbraith was charged with identifying how to “considerably reduce costs” from the council’s £35 million a year education budget, with chief executive Morgan Goodlad asking him to look afresh at the information gathered in the “best value” study. That essentially translated into repeating the fact-finding exercise with pupils, staff and parents of the same schools just two years after the original consultation.
Mr Galbraith said at the time that asking pupils to be bussed distances 6-12 miles was perfectly acceptable given that pupils in the Highlands often have to travel up to 30-40 miles, adding that the dynamics of group learning were hugely important to education. “The whole essence of a school is bringing together a number of pupils and them learning almost as much from each other as they do from their school teachers.”
But parents again protested strongly against proposals to close the one-pupil secondary department in Skerries and Sandness Primary School and, after the political hot potato had been booted into the long grass until after the May 2007 elections, councillors voted by a narrow margin in December of that year to keep them both open.
It is an issue which looks set to continually rear its head for as long as the SIC’s education spending remains substantially higher than can be afforded, causing no end of headaches for officials, councillors, teachers, parents, pupils and journalists alike.