Knitting lessons are to cease in Shetland schools after councillors voted 10-5 to remove the £130,000 annual budget. However, efforts are to be made to increase the amount of knitting taught during existing craft and design classes, which are part of the statutory curriculum, and by encouraging the museum service and Shetland Arts Trust to play a bigger role.
It is expected that many of the 14 part-time knitting teachers will retire or be offered work in other areas which the council has been unable to recruit into.
Today’s debate at the council’s services committee had little of the drama that usually accompanies controversial issues in the Town Hall and there were no public protesters. In February when The Shetland Times first revealed the plan to axe knitting it also drew little reaction from readers.
Cutting the lessons was first suggested in 2005, supported by some headteachers, but it was rejected by the council’s finance working group. Since then other discretionary services such as foreign language assistants in secondary schools have been cut.
Services chairman Gussie Angus remarked that when the teaching of another great Shetland tradition – nautical studies – was stopped there had not been a murmur of concern from a councillor.
Councillors’ appetite for a fight has been sapped by the scale of cuts they have already agreed to impose this year on the schools service and which has already seen them end free musical instrument tuition. They still have to find savings amounting to £900,000 from the schools budget to meet their target of £1.2 million and when the choice is between closing a rural primary school or stopping knitting they know there is little room for protest.
Shetlands Islands Council is believed to be the only remaining local authority in Scotland to offer free knitting classes in primary schools. They were only introduced in the early 1970s, although previously domestic science teachers had offered some instruction.
Council policy states: “Knitting is taught … with a view to ensuring the continuation of a traditional craft which has been, is and, hopefully, will be one of the mainstays of Shetland’s tripartite traditional economy together with crofting and fishing. Shetland’s name is synonymous with Fair Isle and lace knitting and it would be unthinkable that this craft be allowed to die.”
The benefits to pupils are said to include:
● Learning a craft which, in today’s stress-filled lifestyle, offers a soothing and relaxing pastime;
● Non-academic pupils have a chance to shine in the knitting class;
● An ideal situation to learn and practice social skills that is so important at this time when children are becoming increasingly isolated by sitting for hours in front of a computer, loss of family mealtimes, own TV in room etc.
In no doubt about the need to cut out the knitting lessons was councillor Allison “Flea” Duncan whose main crusade as an elected member is curbing council spending. He said the next few years were going to be difficult ones due to the savings that need to be made. “We have to take difficult decisions now and this is the beginning.”
He said knitting was a necessity for Shetland families 50 or 60 years ago but these days knitting machines could do the job cheaper and quicker. In fact he went further, claiming that machine-knit was “as good as any hand-knitted garment” which was “unfortunately a dying art”.
Councillor Laura Baisley tried to get the debate delayed until after the current review of Shetland’s schools, the so-called Blueprint for Education, when the council would have a clear picture of where the schools service was going. She wanted the knitting service to be reviewed and to look at using more volunteers to give lessons.
She was in favour of keeping the tradition strong through knitting lessons in schools, having learnt herself as a 26-year-old by attending the primary school in Fetlar and going on to make and sell Fair Isle yokes. “It’s one of the most magical, creative things I’ve ever done,” she said.
With free music lessons already having been stopped she was concerned the council was failing to support the two activities that Shetland was famous for around the world, putting finance before breadth and depth of learning.
But councillor Bill Manson said the schools service had been squeezing all its budgets for several years, including spending on essentials like children’s books, so it was wrong to give the impression that it was only music and knitting that were being targeted.
Other councillors said how much they or members of their families had hated getting knitting at school.
Councillor Gary Robinson said if members were not able to cut knitting how could they tell people they were going to have to close the primary school to save as little as £90,000 a year. “We have to start somewhere,” he said.
Councillor Alastair Cooper agreed, warning members they could not start tinkering around with the budget savings they had agreed unanimously in February.
Councillor Robert Henderson’s radical solution fell on deaf ears. He said the Anderson High School had 20 more teachers than it required. Calling for a staffing review, he said losing just two teachers would pay for the knitting lessons to continue.
Head of schools Helen Budge said one of the areas where it is hoped to bring in more knitting tuition is through the increased use of the arts trust’s artists in residence, some of whom specialise in crafts and design. Some of the funding for such work comes from outside Shetland.
Schools also visit the new museum each year which has knitting artefacts and workshops for the children.