Councillors have voted to press ahead with a public consultation on the emotive issue of closing up to 16 primary and secondary school departments across the isles.
The basic premise for holding the “blueprint for education” consultation is that the cost of the current schools estate – Shetland has a £37 million annual education budget – means it is not a sustainable model of educating pupils in the future.
What will be the third such consultation in recent times comes as officials stress that the education budget is under more pressure than ever, with Hayfield House faced with making cuts of £2 million in the next financial year.
Savings of £1 million have to be found, along with an additional £1 million to cover the cost of reimbursing Shetland Recreational Trust for using its sports halls and swimming pools, paying for extra hours in nursery classes and free school meals for pupils in primaries 1-3. The latter two policies have been introduced by the SNP administration at Holyrood.
The provisional best case scenario among the “viable” options presented in the document would be for eight closures. They would be the secondary departments at Baltasound and Skerries, along with primary departments at Burravoe or Cullivoe and Uyeasound. Three West Mainland schools, at Sandness, Skeld and Happyhansel, would be consolidated into one. The same would happen with three North Mainland schools at Urafirth, North Roe and Ollaberry.
More radical suggestions on the table include shutting all the other four junior high schools at Aith, Sandwick, Scalloway and Whalsay, along with Bressay’s primary department. Even the option of closing Mid Yell – where a new junior high is in the process of being built – is not being ruled out entirely at this stage.
Given that no significant changes to the school estate have taken place in the past three decades, the chances of enacting such a bold move to close anywhere approaching 16 schools would appear extremely remote.
But at Thursday morning’s services committee meeting several members were keen to highlight the pressing need for economies to be made, with Alastair Cooper stressing the “parlous financial state” which the SIC finds itself in.
The same group of councillors – apart from Jonathan Wills, who was not on the council at the time – voted 11-10 to keep Skerries’ secondary department open and 12-9 to retain Sandness Primary School back in December 2007. But there does now appear to be a tacit acceptance among a substantial number of members that, with school rolls falling and costs going up, at least some schools will now have to make way in order for the books to balance.
Informal consultation will take place between January and March next year with the views of pupils, parents, staff and community councils to be gathered. The findings will then be considered before formal proposals are put forward to councillors in June next year.
Following that, statutory consultations would have to be carried out in line with a new Scottish government bill coming into force in April. If councillors do agree any closures ministers in Edinburgh will then have six weeks to decide whether to call in such decisions – they have the power to refuse consent for closures. The earliest date by which any school could actually close its doors would be June 2011.
During a well-mannered and constructive 50-minute debate in Lerwick Town Hall, at which a handful of members of the public were present, councillors were broadly in agreement over staging yet another round of public consultation.
But the three North Isles members felt they were being particularly hard done by with provisional proposals to consider closing as many as six schools in their constituency. That led to Josie Simpson attempting to remove a phrase stating that the “current scheme of provision of schools cannot deliver” education in the isles.
Mr Simpson said it seemed to be “a bit premature” to make such a statement given that councillors were about to embark on an exercise asking the public for their views, but his move was defeated by 14-6. His fellow North Isles member Robert Henderson then failed in an attempt to have the blueprint for education document shelved altogether until the wishes of the Scottish Qualifications Authority are made clearer in July. His suggestion was voted down by 13-4.
Services committee chairman Gussie Angus said the community was faced with some “fairly rapidly declining school populations” and reminded members of the message contained in this month’s latest damning report from Audit Scotland. It stated: “In our opinion, councillors have yet to demonstrate they are able to collectively take the difficult decisions required to reduce the draw on reserves in line with the agreed financial strategy.”
Cecil Smith, Rick Nickerson and Jonathan Wills were among a succession of councillors to point out that, if pupils are to be brought from junior highs to the Anderson High School at the end of S3 rather than S4, it will only serve to increase the importance of providing adequate hostel accommodation in Lerwick.
Dr Wills said he would vote to close schools “if it is absolutely necessary” and would accept the inevitable “opprobrium” which such a stance would invite. But first he wants to see some “fairly imaginative solutions” put forward. He said it would be worth investigating whether the broadband and internet services are “sufficiently robust” to look at “fairly extensive” distance learning. “It’s going to be an emotional business – we’ve obviously got to make savings,” he added.
North Isles councillor Laura Baisley agreed that more should be done in the sphere of information technology, going on to say that she felt the current proposals lacked both imagination and empathy: “They’re doing that in the outbacks of Australia – why aren’t we using it?” She also suggested rural schools could be transformed into “centres of excellence” to cater for things like archaeology and creative arts.
Ms Baisley had called on councillors to ensure that equality of education actually meant “equal across the board”. But education spokesman Bill Manson said that in a community with dispersed rural areas it would never be possible to give every child precisely the same education. “I don’t believe we are delivering equality today, nor will we be at the end of this exercise, but we will be doing our best … to even out inequalities that naturally occur.”
If councillors truly believed that the status quo would be able to deliver in future years, Mr Manson said, the consultation would be a “huge waste of time”. He called on members not to underestimate the “immense” amount of effort expended on these consultations by staff and argued that the exercise should be “as wide-ranging as possible”.
“There have been no real changes in the past 30 years and pupil numbers and education have changed significantly [in that time]. If we decide on changes, then we can have a period of stability,” he said, adding that if councillors again decided to do nothing he could guarantee that another consultation document would be back before members shortly after the next election.
But Mr Simpson and Mr Henderson were particularly troubled by the potential impact on communities in Unst, Yell and Skerries. Mr Simpson said he felt “our isles are getting very hard-hit by this” and, while a consultation had been agreed upon, he did not want it to appear that the process was a fait accompli. He said schools across the isles were continuing to receive very favourable inspection reports, adding: “An awful lot of this is centralising our education. Why don’t we let people have their say and then draw up what we’re going to do?”
Mr Henderson said he feared that if junior highs were being cut off at the end of S3 it could prove very difficult to attract teachers to work in those schools, a sentiment backed by Shetland Central councillor Iris Hawkins who fears for the future of Scalloway Junior High.