Parents and rural communities across Shetland face a whole year of fighting to try to save their schools from the most sweeping closures for over 40 years. The severest options contained in the blueprint for education which the council is currently consulting on would see all seven of the islands’ small secondary schools being shut along with nine primary departments, forcing every pupil in the islands beyond primary seven to travel to Brae or Lerwick for lessons.
It is unlikely that many schools will be axed, given the past failure of councillors to push through even one unpopular closure. But an early gauge of the strength of their determination this time round will come at the end of June when they vote on whittled-down “formal proposals” for cuts.
Schools which are still on the danger list after June will each be subject to another lengthy consultation before councillors make their final decisions on what to cut in December. The Scottish government can reject the closure of any school and communities will be able to take their protest to ministers, which could make it several months into 2011 before all parts of Shetland finally know their schools’ fate.
The whole process might even be extended much further into next year if the council decides in June to stagger its formal six-week consultations on each major change to a school, doing them in batches due to the sheer amount of work involved and the requirement that they be conducted only during school terms.
This week the schools service emphasised that at this stage the “viable” and “not viable” options presented in the blueprint for each school are only provisional and may change as a result of the current exercise to “gather information” which will be completed on March 22nd.
The first batch of these informal consultation meetings with parents, teachers and pupils was completed last night at the Anderson High School and in Skerries – the last of Shetland’s nine secondary and high schools to be visited. Primary schools are next.
The importance attached to fighting the closure threats has been borne out by the high attendance of the parents who received written invitations to attend with 277 showing up at the first six meetings including 60 in Baltasound and 94 in Whalsay.
Summaries of the views from each school are being posted in the education section of the council website, although progress has been slow. By yesterday morning only the views from two of the nine meetings, in Mid Yell and Sandwick, were available to read.
The overhaul of the schools estate is being driven by the council’s decision to curb the £37-million-a-year education budget by closing and amalgamating “inefficient” schools or those with falling rolls and to reshape schools to fit the government’s new curriculum for excellence which splits learning into blocks of secondary 1-3 and 3-6 instead of the current S1-S4 which the junior highs provide.
Initial protests about the more severe options were made in November and December but since then it has gone quiet, despite the vehement opposition to closures. Some are keeping their powder dry at this stage while preparing for the gruelling battles ahead if their schools are still in the firing line after the 30th June council meeting.
Unst would lose two of its three school departments with the Uyeasound primary shutting and its 11 pupils transferring up the road to join about 24 primary children at Baltasound, which would lose its 26-pupil secondary department with pupils having to leave home aged 11 or 12 to attend school in Lerwick and stay in a hostel.
Chairman of the Uyeasound parent council Derek Jamieson said that “unthinkable” worst-case scenario would cause depopulation and “devastation” to an island which has already suffered major body blows in recent years. “Everybody is affected by it, whether you have bairns at the school or not.”
While Uyeasound has fought and won previous battles to remain open, Baltasound is new to the threat. The island’s website at unst.org is already running a Save our Schools campaign.
Mr Jamieson said the option to close Uyeasound did not fulfil any of the council’s own “relevant factors” for shutting schools, including the educational case, travel distances and times and future pupil population projections. “It’s still a school which is a shining example of providing the curriculum for excellence,” he said.
By law, any school or nursery class put forward for closure must first be put through three tests: viable alternatives must be considered; the effect on the sustainability of the local community must be assessed and, crucially, in considering the likely changes to transport and travel arrangements, particular attention must be given to the effect on pupils, staff and other school users.
He said it would be much better if the council promoted all the positives about small schools as a way of furthering its policy of regenerating rural Shetland. “They speak about falling populations in Shetland. Well, we have the best standard of education in the country – the best schools – and that would be another way of attracting folk into the islands.”
Another view is that the council should be strengthening rural schools instead of spending up to £50m on a showpiece high school in Lerwick.
Under the worst-case scenarios in other areas, Yell could lose its primary school at Cullivoe and Burravoe and its secondary at Mid Yell, leaving just one primary in the new school at Mid Yell which is currently being built. Likewise, Whalsay secondary children might have to travel over two hours a day to Lerwick if their secondary at Symbister is axed.
In the North Mainland up to three primary schools could go with the choice of victims to be made from Voe, Urafirth, North Roe and Ollaberry. Once again Skerries faces losing its secondary, which currently has three pupils.
In the West Mainland two from three of the small primaries could go at Walls, Sandness and Skeld with the pupils all going to the one that survived. Bressay could lose its primary while Scalloway could lose its 115-pupil secondary department with everyone transferring to Lerwick and the same could happen with the 172 secondary pupils at Sandwick secondary.
The threat of closures is obviously the issue causing most concern to the communities affected but the consultation also involves a whole array of other “viable” options for change under which some junior high schools would remain open but lose certain age groups, such as S4 pupils, to bigger schools.
SIC schools quality improvement officer Matthew Moss has been at the meetings in Baltasound, Mid Yell, Scalloway and Skerries. He said reaction had been particularly strong in the North Isles: “It’s fair to say there has been some extremely strong opinions expressed by pupils, staff and parents about the options that are put forward.
“The thing we have been stressing at the meetings and are happy to keep stressing is that these options have been provisionally set and are there for discussion and none of these options at the moment are formal proposals.”
Shetland is not alone in facing closures. In the Western Isles the proposal is to shut nearly half the primary schools due to lack of money and falling rolls. Instead of 36 primaries, there could be just 19 in eight years’ time and four secondary schools, saving £2 million a year, according to a BBC report.