The school closure plans have sparked anger among parents in far flung locations who claim the very fabric of their communities could be under threat.
Some are questioning the value of what could amount to a massive centralisation of education in the isles while others are querying whether Shetland Islands Council will be able to get its plans past the SNP government, which is reluctant to close “rural” schools.
One of the islands which could be most affected by the proposals is Yell, which plays host to two primaries and the Mid Yell Junior High School – itself under threat despite construction having just got underway to build a new one.
As reported last week, youngsters in either or both Cullivoe and Burravoe primaries may have to be moved to Mid Yell under the options outlined in the blueprint for education.
Chairman of the Burravoe Parent Council Steven Brown said the plans risked setting communities in the island against one another.
“The potential for conflict between communities is huge, and it could end up destroying relationships between different areas of the island,” he said.
“There is a lot of potential there for destroying the outlying communities by putting one school against another.”
The father of two accused SIC of rushing through the process to close schools ahead of the introduction of legislation by the Scottish government designed to protect them from that very fate.
“The reason why they are trying to speed the whole process up is because the SNP are trying to put through legislation to safeguard rural schools. That’s not legislation yet, but the SIC know fine well this is in the offing.”
He denied that small schools like Burravoe Primary were too costly to run, adding that the cost of secondary education had risen considerably in recent years.
“We’re fairly confident in ourselves the cost of the Burravoe school in real monetary terms has remained constant over the last 10 years. But overall the budget for the school service has gone up by millions.”
He said his nine-year-old daughter Lucy had been severely affected by the news her school could be facing closure.
Chairwoman of the Cullivoe Parent Council Marina Thomason said she was “dismayed” but not totally surprised to hear the school had been selected for possible closure.
“We had heard rumours this was going to rear its head again,” she said.
She described a blueprint questionnaire sent out to residents in the isles last year as “completely flawed” and said the SIC would have to work extremely hard to make its case for any school closures.
“There will be various hoops they will have to jump through. They will have to be very stringent with their consultation, which they are doing up to a point.
“But my argument is they are basing it on a flawed questionnaire which came out last year.”
She said the fact that closing rural schools in the islands would result in a five mile-plus journey for primary pupils meant SIC would have to take its plans to the Scottish government, which would not look too kindly on them.
“Quite a few on the council are being quite vocal in saying it’s inevitable we will have to close small schools down and make savings. But even if the majority agree and it goes to formal consultation, we have an SNP government against the closure of small schools.”
She disputed recent reports claiming Shetland’s birth-rate was falling. “We had a dip in 2002/03, but I’ve been looking up figures in the General Register Office for Scotland, and last year we had more births in Shetland than we’ve had for the last 10 years. The birth rate is quite stable in Shetland.”
Mrs Thomason said people would increasingly migrate to Shetland’s central belt if widespread closures in rural areas were given the green light.
“What they are speaking about is centralisation. To me, by doing that they are changing the way we live in Shetland – the way we choose to live in Shetland.
“We rely on a lot of incomers coming and settling to Cullivoe, and I believe we just won’t get these incomers if their children are going to have to travel 17 miles to go to school.
“I don’t think we’ll get people wanting to live here if that is the case. I don’t think the SIC has really thought about how that is going to affect the islands.”
At Mid Yell Junior High School, the options on the table are to transfer students to Lerwick at the end of S3, or move children to either Lerwick or Brae from S1 onwards.
Chairwoman of the school’s Parent Council Rosie Briscow said parents were concerned about how those plans would tie in with the forthcoming Curriculum for Excellence, which is designed to split education into two parts from S1 to S3 and S4 to S6.
“It’s not clear at what stage children will be doing their qualifications,” she said.
One of the most hotly contested debates over school closures in the past has centred on the secondary department at the Skerries school, which is once again threatened with closure.
Chairwoman of the Skerries School Board Denise Anderson is used to having to fight to keep the service open. This will mark the fourth time in seven years she has campaigned to retain the service, which she says is crucial for the community on Out Skerries.
“We’re disappointed the Skerries secondary is up for closure again. We will keep fighting it. We’re not going to lie down.”
Further south, Bressay Primary is another school which could be forced to close its doors for the last time – perhaps not least because some parents have chosen to put their children to Bell’s Brae anyway, largely because they work in the town themselves.
Parent Council chairwoman Beatrice Low said the choices made by parents who took their youngsters to Lerwick should not be allowed to impact on others staying at the island’s only school.
“I feel quite strongly rural schools are part and parcel with a rural place,” she said. “I find it hard to understand what our rural areas would be like if all the schools on the blacklist got the chop.
“Losing a school effects the viability of communities – and it effects the chances of anybody coming in. In 50 years time do we want a Shetland that is just Lerwick, or do we want one that has lots of little functioning communities?”