“Instant depopulation” and the destruction of a rural community would be the outcome should the SIC press ahead with its proposal to shut Skerries’ three-pupil secondary department, islanders told councillors and officials during a public meeting last night.
More than 40 members of the community – over half the population – were in attendance for the passionate but fairly even-tempered two-hour session. Visiting council representatives were left in no doubt about the continued strength of opposition from a community which has successfully fended off previous attempts to scrap the one-classroom secondary.
In June, the SIC agreed to formally consult on a closure which it believes will save £62,000 a year from its runaway £38 million a year education budget, though that figure was fervently disputed by several in attendance at the community’s public hall.
Chairman of the council’s services committee Gussie Angus presided over proceedings and kicked off by explaining that the Blueprint for Education exercise was being conducted against a backdrop of falling school rolls and increased centralisation of population in and around Lerwick. He pointed to statistics showing a projected 31 per cent decrease in pupil numbers across Shetland over the next 20 years.
Mr Angus said the council had a responsibility to provide equal opportunity and access to education for young people, which was “a difficulty in a dispersed island community like this”. He also drew attention to the recent scathing verdict of the Accounts Commission over the council’s failure to competently manage its finances at a time of imminent cutbacks to its block grant from Holyrood.
A local resident and father of two school pupils, Ryan Arthur, eloquently expressed many people’s fears over the knock-on impact for the community’s fragile economy. He and others were annoyed at the suggestion within the proposal paper that there will be “no detrimental effect” on its sustainability.
The economy of Out Skerries, made up of the islands of Housay and Bruray and with a population estimated to be around 80, is heavily reliant on the lucrative Bound Skerries Salmon company. It provides employment for eight people between its farm and processing factory. Fishing boats also offer a steady source of income.
But Mr Arthur said that any families with secondary-age children would have no alternative but to up sticks and leave if the department closes, and he suggested the salmon firm would be likely to go down the tubes along with it. “The effect will be depopulation,” he said. “We make our industry here; we don’t depend on handouts to survive. But none of us wants to lose our bairns at the age of 11 years old.”
Head of economic development Neil Grant accepted that more work on the possible economic impact needed to be done, but that such a study would have to be clearly defined. He said it would be difficult to prove “in any meaningful sense” that the salmon farm would cease to exist should the secondary department shut.
Head of schools Helen Budge defended her department’s report on the grounds that the only direct loss of employment in the isles would be the school’s secondary teacher, as the nursery and primary departments will remain open.
But there was anger, too, at the report’s suggestion that pupils would receive a better quality of education at the Anderson High School. Mrs Budge said children would have more opportunity to interact with peers, while SIC representatives also pointed to the community of Fair Isle where pupils head to the AHS at the age of 11 or 12 with parents’ blessing.
The school’s parent council chairwoman Denise Anderson – a prominent figure in the island’s past successes in staving off the closure threat – said she believed the department provided the best education and learning environment for the island’s children. A mother of seven children, six of whom are being educated in Skerries at present, she said the excellent exam results of her son John would not have been replicated on the mainland.
Fears were also expressed about children as young as 11 having to spend long ferry journeys in rough seas travelling to and from Lerwick.
SIC vice-convener and North Isles councillor Josie Simpson was one of the five councillors – along with Mr Angus, education spokesman Bill Manson, North Isles member Robert Henderson and Lerwick North councillor Allan Wishart – present. He pointed to the arrested population decline in Fetlar, which had slipped below 50 but after a concerted effort has now bounced back to 66 people.
“We have to be careful,” he said, adding there was “much more to consider” than education. “If we don’t take heed of the people, we could be faced with the same here.”
But with only five of the 22 elected members present, Melanie Gorman suggested that if councillors were going to take a “life-changing decision” for the community, the least they could do would be to come and see the situation on the ground before doing so.
The consultation period runs until Sunday 10th October, after which the evidence gathered will be included in a consultation report. It is expected councillors will be asked to decide whether or not to recommend closure in December. Should they choose to shut the school, the decision will be referred to Scottish ministers who have a six-week period to decide whether to intervene.
• Anyone wishing to contribute to the consultation can do so in writing to Blueprint for Education, Schools Service, Hayfield House, Hayfield Lane, Lerwick, ZE1 0QD, or by emailing [ mailto:email@example.com ]firstname.lastname@example.org.