A senior councillor insisted today there was little appetite for closing more junior high schools beyond Scalloway and Skerries, as campaigners intensified their passionate efforts to save the two secondary departments from closure ahead of the council’s long-awaited vote next Tuesday.
SIC education spokesman Bill Manson categorically ruled out any further secondary closures in the lifetime of this council. He also rejected protesters’ assertion that shutting Scalloway would eventually spell the end for all junior highs across the isles.
Pleas for councillors to keep the 116-pupil village secondary open from Scalloway’s community council and village hall committee, along with the Shetland Bus Friendship Society and over 100 junior footballers from TSB (Trondra, Scalloway, Burra), are among 15 letters on the subject appearing in tomorrow’s Shetland Times.
Villagers are expected to turn out in force at Lerwick Town Hall next week, along with Skerries folk who are fighting to stop their three-pupil secondary department being shut. There will be separate votes on each and the decisions will have to be ratified by the Full Council on Wednesday.
Scalloway parents have sent every councillor a detailed 24-page response to the schools service’s final consultation document. It sets out why parents believe closure would result in “no educational benefit” and “dubious” financial savings.
Scalloway Parent Council vice-chairwoman Karen Eunson reiterated her belief that accepting the rationale for closing the village secondary would naturally lead to the closure of most other junior highs around Shetland.
But Mr Manson dismissed that suggestion. “That is a viewpoint which has been coming from Scalloway and Scalloway alone,” he told The Shetland Times. “It forms no part of council policy or of council thoughts. I think it will be a difficult enough decision to close Scalloway. I don’t believe there is a will in the county, or within the council, to see virtually all secondaries closed.
“I don’t think we’ll be bussing the entire secondary population of the West Side into Lerwick. I just don’t think we’ll be doing it. The next nearest thing to a school in danger might be Sandwick, but it’s quite a big school and I don’t think that will happen either.”
Services committee chairman Gussie Angus said it was time for councillors to take tough decisions which would benefit all school pupils in the isles.
“It’s time to take a stand for the good o’ all Shetland’s bairns and the future of this community,” he said. “We’re in the worst economic slump since World War II and in that context we can act to safeguard and indeed increase the quality of education for our bairns.
“Folk should realise that 44 per cent of pupils within the Scalloway catchment area already attend the Anderson High School. The opportunities for Skerries children will also be vastly improved by their attendance at the AHS.”
Mr Angus said the report going before councillors on Tuesday spelled out that if the closure proposals are not accepted, “each and every child in Shetland will suffer a loss of over £200-worth of educational provision”. He added: “That’s a price we can’t afford to pay.”
One councillor said this week that, given the grim financial climate, closure was “a far more likely outcome than it has ever been before”. If members decide to shut Scalloway and Skerries, Scottish education minister Mike Russell would then have a six-week period to decide whether to call in the decisions.
Parents believe the process followed by Hayfield has not complied with the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010. They accuse the local authority of “misleading and biased” presentation of information and adopting a “threatening” and “bullying” tone in its reports.
Pupils in the isles are educated in 34 different schools, though five small primaries will be considered for closure next year. Mr Manson believes a reduction in that number would be “an improvement” in the quality of education, but acknowledges that “you can’t have bairns trekking too far”.
He also denied suggestions that the closure of Scalloway’s secondary would “as night follows day” lead to closing primary schools in Hamnavoe and Tingwall, with pupils moved into the village as part of a super-primary.
The size of the new Anderson High School will have to be set before the May 2012 elections. Mr Manson is sure that – should Scalloway and Skerries shut – the size of the AHS will be designed with the presumption that all other junior highs will remain open.
In their response to the consultation, Scalloway parents outline fear at the prospect of losing strong ties between the junior high and the community. They worry, too, about the impact on current S3 pupils who face having to shift schools in the middle of their two-year Standard Grade courses.
Pupils would then move to the AHS next August. Parents highlight the limited canteen and social spaces, with a new school not to be ready until at least 2017. It is suggested the SIC could save significantly by building a new AHS designed for a smaller number of pupils.
Just under half of first year pupils within Scalloway’s catchment area are educated in Lerwick at present. The parents accept Whiteness and Weisdale pupils traditionally go to the AHS but say few from Scalloway and Hamnavoe do. Placing requests from parents with children in Tingwall and Nesting have a propensity to “rise and fall directly in relation to the three threats of closure the school has faced”.
On the money front, Ms Eunson expressed irritation this week that she is still waiting for answers to a number of questions tabled to Hayfield. The schools service said it was doing everything it could to respond to requests for information quicker than the statutory 20-day period allowed under freedom of information legislation.
The parents’ document suggests it would not be feasible for 40 members of staff to be redeployed to a different school, retired or handed redundancy by 2013. Parents claim this means the anticipated savings cannot be achieved within two years.
The document highlights a 30 per cent reduction in the estimated financial savings since June, adding: “This is inadequate information on which to base the closure of a highly valued school which has the support of pupils, teachers, parents and the wider community.”
Ms Eunson said parents and pupils wanted the isles’ 22 councillors to vote on the basis of all available facts and “we thought it was important to provide them with the information missing from the schools service report”.
Both secondaries would shut at the end of the current school year in June 2011, with Scalloway’s closure saving an estimated £700,000 a year and Skerries shaving £70,000 off the council’s annual £42 million education budget. Those figures are hotly disputed by both communities.
Skerries parents insist the money saved would be a drop in the ocean compared to the fragile community’s contribution to the Shetland economy. Parent Ryan Arthur, who says he and his wife will have no option but to leave the island with their two children if closure goes ahead, pointed to the socio-economic impact study carried out at the request of Skerries folk.
“The opinion on the island is that after more than two decades of trying, there are elements within the council that are determined to see this closure achieved as a face-saving exercise and nothing more,” he said.
“We just hope that the councillors and the services committee can see through the consultation documentation that our fears are valid and the effects on our way of life would be grave, and that closing this school will cost the Shetland economy millions of pounds of lost revenue in the long run.”
Mr Arthur said numerous council departments, including Hayfield House, seemed to be “just a bottomless pit for money”. He accepted a broader range of subjects was available at the AHS but “we’re not complaining about the variety that we’ve got here”.
Morale in the island community has been hit badly, he said: “We’ll keep trying our best until the bitter end but the odds are very much against us. There’s such a blind determination to push this through, regardless of sense or logic, that there’s very little to hope for.”
The final report going before councillors was co-authored by executive director of services Hazel Sutherland, head of schools Helen Budge and quality improvement manager Audrey Edwards. It highlights a “high level of over-capacity” and stresses a need to “radically change the current levels of staffing” to save money.
The alternative to shutting Scalloway, it suggests, would be to cut an additional 15 teaching posts across the isles, or to reduce funding for each primary and secondary pupil by £212. For Skerries, the equivalent savings would be found by cutting 1.5 teaching posts or reducing funding for each pupil by £21.94.
In 2008/9 the SIC spent £11,245 per secondary pupil, compared to £8,743 per pupil in neighbouring Orkney. At primary the cost for each pupil was £7,523 – lower than the £8,169 cost in Orkney.
The report states: “Until now, Shetland Islands Council has been in a position to use reserves to support the generous provisions in the school estate within this community in terms of the numbers of schools and the generous levels of staffing within them.
“As a result Shetland provides high quality education to all its pupils as evident in almost all reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. However, due to the spare capacity and the high levels of staffing, this comes at a significantly higher cost per pupil than the Scottish average. Given the financial climate facing the council this position is now untenable.”