Crunch meeting next week will decide future of education in the isles

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Councillors will next week meet to consider sanctioning a deeply unpopular series of closures to primary and secondary schools across Shetland in an effort to reduce the SIC’s £42 million education budget.

A range of possible formulations are being presented which would result in savings of anywhere from £3 million to £12 million a year from the budget. The worst-case, and highly unlikely, scenario would be for 18 primary schools, seven junior high schools and Brae High School to shut, saving £12 million but requiring substantial capital outlay to accommodate pupils elsewhere.

However, it is widely recognised that councillors – who in the past have shied away from pushing through even one closure – will not opt for such a drastic, broad-brush solution. Some members are virtually certain to oppose closing any schools, but there does appear to be a growing recognition that the state of Britain’s public finances will make some form of cutbacks unavoidable.

A report from head of schools Helen Budge is recommending that members at the very least agree to close Scalloway’s 113-pupil junior high, Skerries’ secondary department and five primary schools. Any closures would be subject to a further lengthy period of statutory consultation, meaning that if any schools do shut it will not be until the end of the 2010/11 school term in a year’s time.

SIC education spokesman Bill Manson said it was “very difficult to assess the likely outcome” of next Thursday’s meeting but he believed “a considerable proportion” of councillors were “anxious to do something this time”.

Mr Manson said: “What exactly that will turn out to be I don’t know – there’s also any number of different permutations so the scope for amendments to [the proposals] is close to endless.

“I think there is probably a mood among councillors that they need to tackle this problem fairly and sensibly. Nobody wants, per se, to close schools but they do [recognise] reducing pupil rolls. How we respond to that is a different matter. We need to look at it sensibly and calmly, as far as one can with such an emotive subject, and take some steps which will lead to both a maintenance and hopefully improvement of educational standards.”

Mr Manson said he was personally of the view that some schools would have to close, but he did not want to specify which ones in advance of the meeting. “We certainly can’t allow education to cost us more,” he warned.

In addition to looking to improve value for money, the schools service views changes as essential to meeting major alterations to the Scotland-wide curriculum. Although Holyrood has yet to spell out precisely what that would mean for the exam structure, it will involve splitting learning at secondary level into blocks of S1-3 and S4-6.

It had been proposed that Shetland’s junior highs would only educate pupils for the first three years of their time at secondary school. But Mrs Budge said the consultation had identified a clear preference for pupils staying at junior highs in fourth year under the new system, before transferring to either Lerwick or Brae for fifth and sixth year. Staff indicated that they were comfortable with delivering the first year of secondary pupils’ three-year “senior” phase and that is the approach which is now being recommended.

An informal consultation as part of the blueprint for education exercise aimed at hammering out a model of education fit for the next decade was carried out in potentially affected areas between January and March this year. A series of meetings between Hayfield staff, head teachers and councillors has led to proposals being whittled down to five options for secondary education and four for primary education.

In terms of secondary schools, it is being recommended that formal consultations should begin on closing junior highs in Scalloway and Skerries, which currently has three pupils. Including other planned savings from reducing middle and senior management positions, introducing a new staffing formula and other cutbacks, that option would lead to savings of £2.9 million with affected pupils being transferred to the Anderson High School in Lerwick.

A more radical idea is for the above closures to go ahead alongside shutting the doors on a further four junior highs, at Baltasound, Whalsay, Sandwick and Aith. That would save around £5 million and leave Brae and the AHS as six-year secondaries with Mid Yell – which would be the only remaining junior high – serving as a composite school for the North Isles.

Maintaining the status quo with “significant reorganisation”, the schools service believes, would result in £1.6 million of savings. A more outlandish scheme at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum is closing all junior highs and just having secondary schools in Lerwick and Brae, or even closing the latter and having the AHS as the only provider of secondary education in the isles. That would result in savings of between £5 million and £6 million.

For primary education, the schools service envisages that savings of between £1 million and £1.5 million could be achieved by reducing the number of support staff, limiting the provision of specialist teachers to only art, music and PE, cutting the use of Shetland Recreational Trust facilities, reducing swimming provision and ending knitting instruction, the latter a move already recently agreed by councillors.

But the council’s services committee is next week being asked to sanction the closure of at least five, if not eight, primary schools. The “limited closure” option is to shut Uyeasound, Burravoe, North Roe, Olnafirth and Sandness, transferring pupils to bigger primaries. The more radical third option is to add Cullivoe, Urafirth and Skeld primary schools to those which should be closed – which would save more than £3 million.

Members are also being asked to consider looking at a major overhaul of primary provision in Lerwick and Bressay, with the option of replacing the existing three schools – Bell’s Brae, Bressay and Sound – with a single, larger new one.

A more nuclear option would be to shut 18 primary schools, which would lead to the creation of seven large primary schools at Aith, Baltasound, Brae, Lerwick, Mid Yell, Sandwick and Scalloway. Again, though, it is virtually inconceivable that councillors would plump for such a ruthless approach.

Mrs Budge was at pains to stress that the schools service had taken on board what they were told in the early months of this year. “We have listened to what the communities said to us and we were delighted with the number of folk that actually came to the meetings, both staff and parents, and they made their views very clear.”

She told <i>The Shetland Times</i> that those views had informed several of the proposals now going before members, including the status quo option for both primary and secondary schools and consideration of where parents might wish to transfer their children if schools did have to close.

Mrs Budge said: “That came out of the fact that folk wanted to see the schools retained in their communities, and also they made it very clear that they didn’t want to see pupils moving on [from junior highs] at the end of secondary three, so we removed the possibility that we had in before that we were moving pupils at the end before going into the senior phase.

“We will now have them sitting the first year of the senior phase in the junior high schools, should that be one of the options that’s retained, and then they go on from there.”

One eternal bugbear of those trying to save their schools from the axe is to point the finger at the schools service itself, suggesting that staff at Hayfield House should be laid off before any teaching establishments have to shut. The new proposals – which can be viewed in full on the SIC’s website – include the reduction of middle and senior management positions and a reduction of central staff.

Mrs Budge said she recognised that Hayfield would not be exempt from any efforts to reduce costs but pointed out that there had already been reductions in staff. The number of quality improvement officers had fallen from six to four in recent years, she said, while there were now only two educational support officers rather than four.

“There have been cuts to the central service that folk might not have been aware of,” she said. “But I do recognise there will be further cuts in the central service whichever model they decide to go with.”


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