By JOHN ROBERTSON
Councillors will have to decide before Christmas where to start cutting their £37 million annual spend on education. After years of avoiding wielding the knife, members have been told they must agree savings for 2010 to pay for extra pre-school care and the introduction of free school meals.
SIC head of schools Helen Budge warned the services committee that economies would have to be found somewhere to fund the three hours a day of care for 3-4 year olds, which is a legal requirement from August next year, and pay for free dinners for primaries one to three. “At the tail end of the year we will have to put forward efficiencies to you and options,” she told the meeting.
The quest for savings is to be part of the root-and-branch review – the so-called blueprint for education – which will shape the way Shetland schools are run for the next 10 years. As well as ensuring schools are ready for the introduction of new teaching ideas, such as the curriculum for excellence, the blueprint is intended to improve the experience of being at school.
The main controversy is likely to centre around the potential closure and amalgamation of small schools with future rolls less than 20, which will also involve a debate about trying to ensure that children can go to pre-school and primary school in the same location.
Primary school rolls in many parts of Shetland have been falling steadily since 1989 and are expected to fall another nine per cent in the 10 years to 2017 then another 22 per cent over the following decade.
Figures compiled by the SIC show that in 2007 Shetland primaries already had the lowest pupil/teacher ratio among the Scottish island groups at 9.6 (down from 12.7 in 1997) while the Scottish average was 16 pupils per teacher.
According to the blueprint timetable agreed by the services committee, the review of primary schools and their staffing will take place between August and December after a “strategy” has been brought forward by the schools department in the spring. A strategy for secondary education will be worked out in the autumn followed by one for people with additional support needs.
The blueprint will take over two years to complete even if it all goes according to schedule. The schools service describes the timescale as “very tight” and is being given an extra staff member and more clerical support for 23 months, which it will fund from its existing budget.
The SIC’s spokesman on education and young people, councillor Bill Manson, told colleagues it was vital to finish the job before another election and the arrival of a new set of councillors. He hoped it would deliver an enhanced education system which was better value for money.
A huge amount of data on school costs and pupil and teacher numbers was produced for last week’s committee meeting. It shows that while pupil numbers in primary classes have dwindled in Shetland over the years the number of teachers has increased. In 1997 there were 2,337 primary pupils and 184 teachers but while pupil numbers dropped by 498 (20 per cent) in a decade the number of teachers rose by eight. Despite the small class sizes, Shetland actually spent £1,510 less per primary pupil in 2007 than did the Western Isles Council and £257 less than the council in Orkney.
In the secondaries, Shetland had 125 more pupils to teach than Orkney did in 2007 but the SIC needed 54 more teachers to provide the service. The secondary pupil/teacher ratio was 8.3 in Shetland, 9.1 in the Western Isles, 10.7 in Orkney with a Scottish average of 11.7.
The gross expenditure per secondary pupil has been far higher in Shetland for years and in fact used to be more than double the Scottish average. In 2007 it was £10,084 against the Western Isles’ £9,595, Orkney’s £7,671 and the Scottish average of £6,120. The narrowing gap is attributed to the rest of Scotland catching up with Shetland’s smaller class sizes, as required by the government.
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A planning application for the new Anderson High School in Lerwick has been lodged, with scale plans for the new building currently on show at Islesburgh Community Centre.
Services committee chairman Gussie Angus said: “This will be a landmark building in Lerwick and I would encourage anyone with an interest in this project to go along Islesburgh to see the indicative plans.”
The question of funding for the project will be discussed by councillors at meetings scheduled for May. At the moment the proposal agreed in principle is to explore a sale and leaseback arrangement with Shetland Charitable Trust, through its property company SLAP. Head of finance Graham Johnston is due to report back on the detailed proposals for funding.