By NEIL RIDDELL
The potential closure of small rural schools will be back on the agenda later this year, with as many as seven primary departments possibly under threat, after further details of the SIC’s controversial Blueprint for Education were revealed this week.
Councillors agreed to a set of broad principles designed to “take forward education in Shetland over the next 10 years within budget” and aimed at streamlining its network of 33 schools at yesterday morning’s special meeting of the services committee in Lerwick Town Hall.
The next stage will be the drawing up of action plans in five key areas. Those are: early years; primary; secondary, further and higher; additional support needs; and internal management. They will each be considered on a step-by-step basis, taking into consideration a raft of new Scottish government policies which have to be complied with along with local factors.
Head of schools Helen Budge confirmed that guidelines on primary schools stating that “consideration will be given to amalgamation and consolidation of schools with long-term pupil roll projections of fewer than 20 pupils” meant several small rural primaries in Shetland would have to be looked at as the education department seeks to balance the books.
That means another layer of consultation will have to be undertaken with individual schools before any recommendation to councillors for closure, or otherwise. The tiny primary department at Fetlar looks set to close anyway as both of its existing pupils will have left by summer 2010, but others which fall into the category of having a projected roll below 20 are Burravoe, Cullivoe, North Roe, Ollaberry, Sandness, Urafirth and Uyeasound.
Because of new legislation in relation to nursery education, which will lead to an increase in the number of teaching hours for pre-school children from August 2010, that is the first area which will be looked at, followed by primary and then secondary education. More specific details are expected to be revealed when a timescale for the whole process is brought before the services committee on 12th March.
Ms Budge told the committee that the number of schools in Shetland had fallen from 50 to 33 since 1965 but that virtually all of the closures were completed by 1975 and data collected clearly shows that primary rolls have been “falling steadily for quite some time now”. She said there were five schools at which the falling pupil roll means a reduction in the number of staff will be going ahead which will make some savings, but the new legislation is likely to impose additional burdens in other areas. She conceded the findings of the blueprint were “quite broad, but at this stage they have to be”.
Education is the biggest drain on the council’s reserves, which it can no longer afford to continue raiding, and the attempt to identify a “blueprint” comes at a time when the number of children between the age of three and 16 is projected to fall by almost a quarter, from 3,910 to 3,047, in less than two decades’ time.
There are no detailed costings at this stage so it is impossible to say what the implications for the £34.5 million education budget – which, per pupil, is by far the highest in Scotland – will be. But many councillors were yesterday under no illusions that the closure of small rural primaries across Shetland must be considered sooner rather than later.
Aware of the public perception that the consultation exercise was a “hidden agenda” with a view to closing schools, South Shetland member Rick Nickerson said: “We’re going to have to take decisions here. Look at the revenue costs: we need to be honest that there will be proposals [for closure] that come forward. We have to be realistic and I’m happy to be open and transparent about it.”
North Isles councillor Robert Henderson, in whose constituency lie three potentially vulnerable primaries, said the public “see this exercise as a means of closing peerie schools”. He said Shetland’s per pupil spend on primary education was good and that if savings had to be made they would have to come from secondary education, by amalgamating and potentially closing the departments at Scalloway and maybe even Sandwick. “That’s the reality of it,” he said.
The council’s education spokesman Bill Manson said that if you went back as far as the 1940s there had been around 70 schools across the isles, but the programme of closures was more or less completed over 30 years ago, since when “provision has changed massively”. It is vital, he said, that the SIC “cuts the cloth” so that a system of education fit for the next two decades can be hammered out.
Mr Nickerson pointed out that if there was any spare capacity at the new AHS, there could be an opportunity for synergies with Shetland College which is “bursting at the seams”, a call which was backed by college board chairman Andrew Hughson, while Ms Budge said she would welcome any move towards closer cooperation between the school and college. Mr Nickerson added that he would like to see an independent group carry out the review of internal management of education so that the schools service was not evaluating itself.
Meanwhile, councillor Jonathan Wills said he was confused as to how a holistic blueprint could be drawn up given that the size of the new Anderson High School had already been stipulated. “Depending on what this action plan says, we may end up needing a smaller Anderson High; or a very much larger one. Remember: the latest design has no more teaching space than the existing school.”
Yesterday’s report also includes a 44-page analysis of the blueprint consultation, an exercise which was heavily criticised in some quarters with complaints that questions were poorly worded and weighted in favour of a particular outcome, as well as uncertainty over precisely what participants were being asked.
Over 1,200 individual questionnaire responses were received and collated, over half of which came from “members of the public” rather than parents or teachers.