Parents in the small community of Burravoe on the east side of Yell are largely resigned to having to take the fight to save their primary school from the axe to the Scottish education minister.
It was one of seven school departments mooted for closure in a 13-5 vote by councillors to proceed to formal consultation last week, prompting parent council chairman Steven Brown to accuse council staff of “deceit” in their approach to earlier consultations.
Mr Brown said he was not hugely surprised by the decision but rejected any notion that smaller schools provide a poorer quality of education and said it appeared SIC education spokesman Bill Manson was trying to carve out a “legacy” of closing small schools. Mr Manson moved the proposals last week, saying he did support rural schools but only “in numbers that we can sustain and support”.
“He seems hell-bent on closing a lot of peerie schools,” Mr Brown said. “I get the impression it’s his number one priority in life. This option the councillors have picked, basically, is not much different from the options that they’ve looked to in the past. He’s got a bit more support in the council chamber and with this economic downturn, it’s making it more justifiable.”
Assuming there is no move to overturn the services committee’s decision at next week’s Full Council, the formal consultation for Burravoe is expected to take place in January. Should members then vote for closure, it will be referred to Holyrood for a final decision before the winter is out and could be among a number of schools shutting their doors for the last time in a year’s time.
Mr Brown said: “Personally, I think we were always destined for being under the threat of closure, to go under this consultation banner, and ultimately I pretty much knew that we’d be having to take our case to the Scottish education minister.”
When The Shetland Times came to visit the 11-pupil, one-teacher school at lunchtime on Tuesday, pupils had just finished a video conferencing session related to BBC television programme Dr Who with other schools around the country on Scottish Government-funded education intranet service Glow.
It was an essential tool, Caroline Breyley said, in allowing pupils in remote areas to communicate with other school kids, and give them an opportunity to hear from people like popular children’s author Julia Donaldson.
Last week’s news left Ms Breyley “very disappointed” because of the importance she places on small schools being rooted firmly in their community. Pupils can benefit from the nearby Old Haa Museum, examining the isle’s geology, and they take part in a nationwide crofting connections project by visiting a working croft just over the fence from the playground.
“I personally have a very firm belief that children should be educated in their own communities,” said the Bath-raised Ms Breyley. She is ably assisted at the school by a teaching assistant, part-time supply teacher, cook, cleaner and normally a playground assistant, though there is a vacancy for the latter at present.
She has been in charge of the school for seven and a half years having moved from a single-teacher rural school in Cumbria, geographically the highest school in Britain.
With a breadth of experience of using information technology in schools, Ms Breyley envisages the future of education lying in the opposite direction of the track to that which councillors are set to pursue.
“My personal philosophy is that in the distant future there will be lots and lots of small schools – almost a school at the end of every road – because expertise will be shared. The children’s horizons can really expand.”
Aside of the school and part-time post office, there is little in the way of employment at Burravoe with many folk using the convenience of the nearby Ulsta ferry terminal to commute across Yell Sound to Sullom Voe.
Mr Brown, who has two girls aged five and nine at the school, feels there has historically been a lack of investment more generally by the SIC, with the community clubbing together to build their own private pier and marina with “little assistance”.
He said: “The SIC seems to be doing everything in its power to make living in any of the North Isles as unattractive as possible by ever-increasing ferry fares and not building council houses in areas where they are needed.”
A “few parents” in the school’s catchment area decide to take their children to Mid Yell, but Mr Brown says that is “either for personal reasons because they’re working there” or because of uncertainty over Burravoe’s future.
He believes there is evidence to show that composite classes are good for children’s education and suggests that mixing primary and secondary pupils “leads to inappropriate behaviour in young children”.
The wider community in Yell, Mr Brown feels, is broadly behind the campaign to save the smallest of the isle’s three primaries from the axe.
The impact on his own children is a “worry” and he suggests they have been subjected to “mental cruelty” because of the uncertainty. “They do come home quite worried about things because they certainly pick up on negative vibes.”
Mr Brown believes closing remote schools flies in the face of the council’s commitment to supporting and sustaining rural communities and is incredulous over the £6 million package of savings which councillors have signed up to.
He accuses schools staff of engaging in a “never-ending story of deceit”, disputing the way in which costs are allocated between primary and secondary departments at schools catering for both age groups.
Parents do not relish the prospect of putting their children on longer journeys to Mid Yell and Mr Brown also dismisses the travel times produced. He says a study of journey times produced by the local bus cmopany has not been examined and estimates that once a bus has travelled from West Yell down the narrow Cupister road and back out again it will be a 35-40 minute trip on roads which are “often impassable” during the winter months.
Hayfield has accepted that it used erroneous birth rate figures provided by the General Register Office for Scotland, which have now been amended, earlier in the consultation. Mr Brown plans to spend the coming weeks and months trying building up “more accurate information” in a number of areas.
Provisional schools service figures show the school will cost £167,183 in total this year, but it hopes to save £270,631 by shutting Burravoe and transferring pupils to Mid Yell. The latter figure would come through economies of scale from having only one school and various other cuts, says quality improvement manager Matthew Moss. The cost per pupil in 2008/9 was £12,497 at Burravoe set against £8,213 per pupil in Mid Yell.
Councillors voted last week for proposal two in the Blueprint for Education, which added the closure of five primary schools to a package of savings contained in proposal one. But the savings package excluding closures was calculated across the whole primary school estate rather than on a school-by-school basis, meaning it is not possible at this stage to say precisely what the saving from shutting Burravoe alone would be.
Meanwhile, those with a stake in the Burravoe school’s future face what Ms Breyley described as an “incredibly stressful” six months or so before learning their fate. Staff are determined not to let it affect the children, who have plenty to look forward to including next week’s end-of-term open evening at which they can show off the fruits of
their labour over the past few months.
“We’re not looking forward to it at all,” she said. “It is going to be an incredibly stressful time . . . and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. But we’ve got lots of positive things that are going on and those are the things we’re emphasising.”