Pupils at Scalloway Junior High staged a protest during school time today after one of the area’s local councillors failed in an attempt to reverse the decision to begin statutory consultation on shutting the village’s secondary department.
They gathered outside in the school’s multi-court after registration to demonstrate against the proposed closure, with a “Hands Off Scalloway School” banner and posters, chanting “Save Our School” and “SOS”.
At just after 9am there were around 100 pupils from across the year groups. They were joined by some members of the primary department, which is to remain open.
With teachers and some parents looking on, and with the wind blowing a gale, they sang, banged drums and rattled tambourines, eager to be heard.
One of the organisers, Jessica Johnson, 14, who is in S3, said: “It shows how determined we are, that we’re out in this wind!”
Another, Kirsty Uttley, also 14 and in S3, said the campaign has the support of all of the school’s pupils. “We’ve got people from different catchments to organise different years, and even some of the primary too.”
At Wednesday’s Full Council meeting councillor Iris Hawkins said people in the village were “horrified” at the prospect of closing the school. She said there was concern about the state of the existing Anderson High School, which pupils are to be transferred to, and it could be “quite some time” before a new school will be built and opened.
But Mrs Hawkins lost a vote on removing Scalloway and the Skerries’ small secondary department from the consultation process by 17-2, gaining the support only of Laura Baisley, and was scolded by a procession of colleagues for revisiting the issue a fortnight after the original decision.
Leading the charge was Gary Robinson, who said all councillors could “bang a drum for our own patch”, but no decision had been taken to shut any schools and if there are not valid reasons to do so, none will be closed following the statutory consultation. He added that members needed to “at least prove that we can stick to some decisions”.
Education spokesman Bill Manson said he rejected any suggestion that the AHS was not fit for purpose, adding the council was “not obliged to keep schools open for the sake of parental choice”.
Services committee chairman Gussie Angus said members had been given a “rare opportunity to see ourselves as others see us” over the past two days at the Accounts Commission hearings and, irrespective of what members thought were the merits of individual schools, they were facing up to some “pretty unpalatable realities” over spending cuts.
However, Mrs Baisley said she had “every sympathy” with folk in Scalloway and she did not believe the £1.4 million of savings would necessarily be achieved given that most staff would have to be redeployed elsewhere. Until a new secondary school was built in Lerwick “we shouldn’t even consider moving bairns”.
Central Mainland member Andrew Hughson explained he had been out of Shetland a fortnight ago when the decision was first taken. He said Scalloway was a “wonderful” school and he took the approach that “if it’s not broken don’t fix it”. But while he defended Mrs Hawkins’ stance, he did not side with her in the vote against moving to consultation because he was “fairly secure we can put forward a good case to keep it open”.
At today’s protest, pupils also outlined a whole list of things which in their opinion make Scalloway school preferable to the Anderson, such as the smaller classes, the school’s Eco flag achievements and the fact the school is rooted in the community.
Local shops and the swimming pool would also lose out, they said, should the school be downsized. They want councillors to think about the wider effects of the school closing.
David Nugent, 15, of S4, said: “We want [the councillors] to think about how much money they are actually going to save, when you think about running buses and other costs.”
Kirsty said it was about more than just the money. She said: “The way we see it, [closing the school] is not going to do anything for our education, or for the community. It would just be a really bad idea. We’re just trying to make our point, really.”
A Facebook page was created by Kirsty, Diana Inkster and David on Tuesday and has attracted 566 members so far. By yesterday an online petition, also created by Miss Uttley, had 91 names on it and a website has been set up by the parent council on behalf of the community.
Director of the North Atlantic Fisheries College David Gray said: “As a parent of three children at the school I only have praise for the teaching team and the way in which they engage with each pupil as an individual and not just a number, knowing every single one by name.
“Joyce Gear and her management team should be being congratulated on what a fantastic job they are doing in preparing Shetland’s young people to take their place in the community.
“But instead Mrs Gear, in her last address as head teacher [before the end of term], had to talk of how her school was threatened with closure … a feat she undertook with dignity and respect.
Mr Gray said he had experienced at first hand the impact of closing community schools in Derbyshire as a chair of a community learning group. “Communities seldom recover from the removal of one of their cornerstones.”
The protesters say there is a plethora of reasons why the school ought to remain open. One Facebook commenter, Carole Radford, wrote: “Have they considered the cost of transporting all these children and the worry to parents when we have icy road conditions in winter?
“Scalloway is a growing community with new housing and new families, if anything they should be extending the school and encouraging new business, I pick up my grandson from the school and it looks like a good place to be.”