A last-ditch attempt by a trio of councillors to save compulsory knitting lessons in Shetland primary schools from the axe was resoundingly defeated today.
In the wake of the negative public reaction from a number of individuals and bodies including the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute (SWRI), councillors Florence Grains, Laura Baisley and Rick Nickerson had united to try to secure a stay of execution for a year while the impact of cutting out the lessons was examined in more detail.
But they lost out by 17 votes to three during a meeting of the Full Council in Lerwick Town Hall.
The move, in an effort to save £130,000 a year, was effectively agreed when members set their annual budget back in February. Initially there was little in the way of public response, but some concern has been expressed following councillors’ 10-5 vote to abandon the lessons at a meeting of the services committee earlier this month.
Removing the classes will save 1.4 per cent of the ambitious £9.9 million the council is trying to slash from its revenue spend this year. Councillors faced a sizeable backlash after introducing charges for music lessons three months ago and there have recently been suggestions that members appear hell-bent on withdrawing support for two of the activities which make Shetland known culturally around the world.
But having agreed a budget which sees charges for services having to go up in other areas as well, councillors are only too aware of the need for a programme of austerity this year. It has also been accepted for some time that government-imposed cuts of at least three per cent, maybe more, can be expected in the coming years.
It was against that backdrop that Mrs Grains this week pleaded with members to reconsider the decision, but she was only able to persuade two of her colleagues. She said the assertion of some that most pupils showed little interest in the pastime was contradicted by a letter from Happyhansel pupils this week to be published in The Shetland Times. They point out that none of their parents are able to knit and that if lessons are withdrawn they will have no opportunity to learn themselves.
Ms Baisley said there was “a long way to go” before the ongoing Blueprint for Education consultation was completed and its findings should not be pre-empted. “To say people needn’t do it because they don’t like it isn’t a valid argument,” she continued, pointing out that she had hated running around when she was a pupil but still had to take part in physical education classes.
On that point, Bill Manson pointed out that subjects including maths and PE were part of the core curriculum across Scotland, whereas knitting was a discretionary offering. Besides that, a series of councillors lined up to stress the need for cutbacks and to demonstrate to Audit Scotland that members can make decisions and stick to them.
“We proposed a balanced budget in February on the advice of senior education officials,” said Alastair Cooper. “If you want to put knitting back in … you’re laying down an edict without recognising that we have to balance the books. What other piece of education is going to be cut?”
Betty Fullerton saw knitting as “another one in a raft of measures” to balance the budget and, apologising for using a knitting allegory, she said: “We can’t start unpicking it or the whole thing will unravel in the future.” She failed to see how reinstating the lessons could be viewed as more important than the possible closure of rural schools, adding: “This is another tiger we have to face and we have to face it with courage.”
Mr Nickerson, the SIC’s culture spokesman, protested that axing knitting had been “offered to us on a plate” without any analysis of the social and economic risks such a move entailed.
He suggested the knock-on impact for the knitwear industry and on the uptake of related college courses may not be known for up to a decade.
But Allison Duncan, who was convinced of the need for major cutbacks long before many of his fellow councillors, said modern technology and machine-knitting have long taken over from hand-knitting. “This is a way of starting to save some thousands that will go into millions,” he said.
It is thought that Shetland is the only remaining local authority offering free knitting classes in primary schools. To soften the blow, attempts are to be made to increase the amount of knitting taught during existing craft and design classes. It is expected that many of the 14 part-time knitting teachers will retire or be offered work in other areas.
Some members were eager for ways to be found for classes to continue in some form, such as bringing in volunteers or perhaps involving Shetland Charitable Trust. Gary Robinson said it was “an issue of choice” and that he would like there to be a way for those who wish to learn how to knit be allowed to do so. “We are turning folk out that can read and write. We are not turning knitters out of school. We have to look at things which are not statutory functions [to identify savings].”
Delivering his latest update to councillors on progress in making the cutbacks, which most councillors appear to have tacitly accepted is an unrealistic prospect in this financial year, head of finance Graham Johnston said “we travel in hope here”. He insisted he was confident that “substantial progress” could be made. This year’s budget is based on spending £2 million from the council’s oil reserves to support revenue spending as part of a strategy to end reliance on the reserves for that purpose in two years’ time.
Mr Johnston said “knowledgeable commentators” were estimating future government cuts of around three per cent a year. The new coalition of Tories and Liberals at Westminster is seeking £6 billion in savings this year, but because the Scottish government’s budget for 2010/11 has already been set it will be spared the cutbacks for now. As to the future, Mr Johnston said the picture should become somewhat clearer after new UK chancellor George Osborne delivers his emergency budget on 22nd June.