18th November 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Shetland Life: Editorial

Softening the blow

It seems that after years of hesitation the council may finally be pressing ahead with school closures in the islands.

Councillors last month decided to consult on the closure of seven schools in total. Uyeasound, Burravoe, Sandness, North Roe and Olnafirth primaries, and the secondary departments at Scalloway and Skerries, were chosen from a longer list of potential losses.

Few will be truly surprised by this decision; closing schools has seemed inevitable for some time. Big savings are necessary in the education department and these kinds of major cuts are relatively simple to do, requiring very little imagination (knowing where to start chopping in Hayfield House, on the other hand, would take serious thought, though I have no doubt that it is equally necessary).

But of course, for the communities affected this is certainly not a simple matter. It is going to be controversial and hugely emotive. Losing a school is a serious blow, and it will be taken personally. And it is worth considering why this is the case.

Within a small community, a school is far more than just a provider of educational services, no matter how often bureaucrats describe them in such terms. (Similarly, a village post office is never just a place to buy stamps, and a shop is always more than just a purveyor of beans and beer.)
A school is both a focus and an adhesive within a community. It holds a place together through the generations, and in doing so it offers hope for the future. The success and continuation of a school is of benefit not just to parents and pupils, but to everyone who shares that place. Its loss, similarly, is universally felt. Such losses can cause communities to falter and fail.

So the question is, if these closures are unavoidable (it it seems likely that they are) what is to be done to minimise the impact of their loss?
Educationally, it is hard to see a major problem. No child is going to lose out on their education, and some may even find their development improved through interaction with a larger group of peers.

But what of the communities’ loss? On this matter the council cannot simply wash its hands. Their responsibility is not just to their budgets, it is to the well-being of their constituents and the health of Shetland’s communities.

The savings made by these cuts may well be necessary (and I suspect few would dispute that), but perhaps the council will also need to look at what can be done to soften the blow. How can they ensure that these losses do not lead to further, more permanent damage?

* * *

Once again, Stuart Hill will be bitterly disappointed by the inexplicable failure of the Shetland people to rise up in support of him and declare independence for the islands.

He’s tried a newsletter, but nobody read it. He tried lectures, but nobody turned up. He tried Forvik, but nobody cared. Now he’s trying “Sovereign Shetland”, but it seems that nobody’s even noticed.

Credit must be given to the man for sheer persistence. It takes a messianic level of self-belief to keep on trying in the face of such overwhelming apathy from the public.

But persistence alone does not win friends. Nor does it win arguments. And Mr Hill’s arguments, right from the beginning, have sounded more like wild conspiracy theories and pathetic excuses for tax evasion than serious political or historical analysis.

The only grounds on which it would be possible to justify the kind of changes Mr Hill desires would be democratic. If a majority of Shetlanders wanted to see a “sovereign Shetland” then yes, let’s declare one and see what happens. But the majority are not calling for such a change; nor are they even engaging in the debate. And Stuart Hill knows this.

Mr Hill’s actions and attitude are not just undemocratic, they are insulting. He appears to assume that Shetlanders are too stupid to make up their own minds, so he is trying to decide the future on their behalf. That is not an acceptable means of bringing about change.

Mr Hill has lost the argument, and he will lose the battle.