Five primary schools and the secondary department at Scalloway are facing the axe after councillors agreed by a sizeable majority yesterday to proceed to a formal statutory consultation on closures.
The schools in line to see their doors shut in just over one year’s time are the secondary departments at Scalloway and Skerries along with primary schools in Burravoe, North Roe, Olnafirth, Sandness and Uyeasound.
Members of the services committee voted 13-6 in favour of the move which, along with other savings, will allow the council to slash a substantial £6 million from its £42 million annual education budget. Per pupil, it amounts to by far the highest spend on education by any local authority in the country.
Should members decide to press ahead with closures following the statutory consultation, they would still have to be ratified by Scottish government ministers. The mood among councillors at Lerwick Town Hall yesterday would appear to suggest that, unlike on previous occasions, they are in no mood to back down in the face of potentially crippling public sector cuts affecting councils throughout the UK.
Assuming yesterday’s decision is not overturned at a Full Council meeting on 30th June, consultation will begin and continue into the autumn. Following that exercise, the matter will go back before councillors in December. If they vote for closures, a ministerial verdict can be expected in February or March next year.
The strongest resistance to the closures during what, given the emotive nature of the subject at hand, was a fairly even-tempered debate came from the SIC’s trio of North Isles members. Their ward is in line for three closures.
During a discussion which lasted well over two hours, Robert Henderson suggested that if the best councillors could offer for outlying areas was to shut their schools then they deserved to be “taken outside the Town Hall at the first opportunity, lined up and shot – with Da Flea first in the queue”.
But while resisting more radical options before them, the most extreme of which would have seen 18 primaries and eight secondary departments shut, an overwhelming majority of members backed education spokesman Bill Manson’s call to adopt a more limited package of closures.
Several who voted in favour of closing schools accused colleagues of “electioneering” by resisting the shutting of schools in their own wards. The consensus among two-thirds of members was that a combination of financial pressures, falling pupil rolls and changes to the nationwide curriculum made some closures simply unavoidable.
Vice-convener Josie Simpson and others feared closing rural schools was another example of the drifting centralisation towards Lerwick and other central areas – a pattern which he said had to be resisted.
But those backing closures dismissed that, arguing that the schools service should not be deployed as a “rural development agency” and that it ought to fall to the economic development unit to create job opportunities in the rural hinterlands.
Consensus on both sides of the debate held that many rural schools were excellent places for children to be taught, with Uyeasound singled out for praise on the back of a superb recent inspection report. But those advocating closures said the excellence was invariably a reflection on the quality of teachers rather than the buildings that housed them.
Allison Duncan’s call for “harsh decisions” may have put him first in line for execution in Mr Henderson’s book, but he referred to the experiences of people in the South Mainland after five schools were amalgamated into one in Cunningsburgh four decades ago. It was a move which “pupils then and parents now” told him was “the best thing that ever happened in their community”.
Members had been given five possible permutations for secondary education and four for primary schools. Mr Manson moved that members agree to option two in each case, saving £3 million through a variety of cutbacks and staffing changes and a further £3 million from the seven closures.
Services committee chairman Gussie Angus pointed to a recent application from Western Isles Council to close 18 schools, showing that by contrast the SIC was being “relatively modest”. Concurring, Allan Wishart said a refusal to act would leave councillors being branded “gutless” by the wider community.
Mr Simpson pleaded without success for colleagues to plump for option one in both primary and secondary, which would have meant no closures but did include the package of savings. He said shutting schools in island communities was “utterly different” to the mainland because it would lead in some cases to pupils having to travel by ferry.
He understood and accepted the imperative to cut costs and it would be a “long and hard task”, but “we don’t have to go down the road of centralising everything”. Addie Doull agreed, saying he believed some schools would have to close but “communities should be allowed to make those decisions”.
Arguably the boldest of yesterday’s moves – which will inevitably prove deeply unpopular in the affected areas – was to include Scalloway’s 113-pupil junior high among the mooted closures. Mr Manson said that while it was not a small school, a proportion of pupils in its catchment area were already travelling to Lerwick.
But Shetland Central member Iris Hawkins launched an impassioned defence of the village’s secondary department and suggested there was evidence contradicting the SIC’s own figures showing falling pupil rolls.
She said children received more individual attention in small schools and moving pupils to Lerwick at the age of 11 would damage the quality of education for town and village pupils alike once they faced bigger class sizes.
Moving the additional pupils to the AHS would, according to school service figures, increase the roll there to 928. Although it has a capacity for 1,200 in theory, concern was voiced that there are inadequate social areas and canteen facilities as things stand. Of course, a new AHS of yet-to-be-determined size remains in the offing but it may not be ready to open until 2015 or later.
Mrs Hawkins said there would be increased travel costs and with rising fuel prices that was only liable to get worse, while there would also be a negative environmental impact. “I think this is completely the wrong direction.”
Reservations were raised about the journey times some primary age children would have to make, which could exceed 30 minutes each way in some cases.
In the North Isles, primary pupils at Uyeasound would have to travel to Baltasound, while those in Burravoe would go to Mid Yell. North Roe pupils would be bussed south to Ollaberry and children in Sandness would go to either Aith or Happyhansel. Parents of Olnafirth pupils would have a choice of Brae, Lunnasting or Mossbank.
It is possible the closures could trigger more changes further down the line, with several key questions remaining unanswered at this stage. One strong possibility should Scalloway shut, for instance, would see the spare space being converted into a larger primary school taking in Hamnavoe and Tingwall pupils.
The uses to which other dormant buildings could be put – something the council has to demonstrate before closure – is still to be hammered out. Likewise, it is unclear how much the council can expect to make from selling old buildings.
Another measure included but not discussed in any detail yesterday is the sanctioning of a feasibility study looking at a major overhaul of primary provision in Lerwick and Bressay. It could see Bell’s Brae, Bressay and Sound combined into a single, larger new school.
There is some clarity on the new Scotland-wide Curriculum for Excellence, which involves splitting learning at secondary into blocks of S1-S3 and S4-S6.
It had been proposed that Shetland’s junior highs would only educate pupils for the first three years. But head of schools Helen Budge said there a clear preference for pupils staying at junior highs in fourth year, before transferring to either Lerwick or Brae for fifth and sixth year, and that will now be adopted.
Mrs Budge – whose department received praise for the “comprehensive” research carried out during an informal consultation between January and March this year – said it had been clear from speaking to parents and teachers that no community wished to lose their school.
But there had been an acceptance that “something will have to happen”, the end result of which was the package of options drawn up following a series of meetings between Hayfield staff, head teachers and councillors, which was published last Friday.
The proposals adopted by councillors yesterday were the minimum number of closures recommended by Hayfield. The schools service’s preferred option was to close a further four primaries – Cullivoe, Urafirth, Sandness and Skeld – and to begin drastically reducing the number of secondaries so that only the AHS, Brae High and Mid Yell Junior high were left.
An attempt by Jonathan Wills to get members to close the four primary schools was defeated 12-5, with two abstentions. Likewise Betty Fullerton, who had voted against closure in the first instance, was defeated when she attempted to get members to take a “longer-term view” and add Baltasound, Sandwick and Whalsay to the secondary departments facing closure.
Alistair Cooper floated the idea of a secret ballot among councillors, before later appearing to row back on that after it was rejected. A roll-call vote was taken in the end. Those backing the closures were: Mr Angus, Jim Budge, Mr Cooper, Mr Duncan, Florence Grains, Mr Manson, Caroline Miller, Rick Nickerson, Frank Robertson, Gary Robinson, Cecil Smith, Dr Wills and Mr Wishart.
Those who voted to exclude closures from the planned cutbacks were: Laura Baisley, Mr Doull, Mrs Fullerton, Mrs Hawkins, Mr Henderson and Mr Simpson.