Councillors have backed a deeply unpopular proposal to shut Scalloway’s secondary department, but voted to keep Skerries’ three-pupil secondary department open.
While that sparked rejoicing among islanders, the decision on Scalloway seems certain to prompt outrage among members of the community in the village and its surrounding area. A passionate campaign spearheaded by the school’s parent council over the past six months saw over 2,000 people join a group on social network site Facebook protesting against closure.
Today’s decisions must still be ratified at tomorrow’s meeting of the Full Council. The final hope for those seeking to save Scalloway’s secondary is for the Scottish government to call in and overturn the council’s decision. Education minister Mike Russell will have six weeks to decide whether to do so.
Following a tense 90-minute discussion, members voted 13-9 in favour of the schools service’s recommendation to shut the 116-pupil village secondary. Following that, the culmination of a 45-minute debate on Skerries saw three councillors switch sides to ensure that pupils will continue to be educated in the island until the end of secondary four.
If the SNP government does not force the council to change tack, existing Scalloway pupils will be transferred to the Anderson High School in Lerwick next August. Teaching staff will be redeployed within the education department. The schools service hopes the closure will save £707,000 a year as part of a drive to cut £5 million from its £42 million annual education budget.
Speaking afterwards, parent council vice-chair Karen Eunson said: “We are obviously really disappointed. It wasn’t unexpected in that we were aware of a lot of last-minute lobbying. The strong feeling within the community is that they have not been listened to.
“We’ll be going along to observe the meeting tomorrow, but we will be asking for a call-in. We believe we have a strong case, as we have consistently pointed out flaws and inaccuracies [in the consultation].”
Calls for all 22 councillors to be present for the momentous decisions were heeded and around 50 members of the public took their seats in Lerwick Town Hall to hear the debate.
Services committee chairman Gussie Angus began proceedings by stressing the enormous task ahead of councillors in seeking savings of 15 per cent in every SIC department over the next three years.
Mr Angus said he understood the emotional reaction and noted the “intense and well-organised lobbying” efforts. He thanked Hayfield staff for working “well above and beyond” the call of duty while being subjected to criticism, “some of it personalised which I deplore”.
Most of the arguments for and against the closures have been well documented in recent weeks. Those in favour of keeping Scalloway open said no clear educational case had been demonstrated. The secondary’s close links with the community, in particular the NAFC marine centre, were repeatedly highlighted.
Councillor for the area Iris Hawkins said it made no sense to shut a perfectly good school where pupils got an excellent education despite staff having the “continued threat of school closure hanging over their heads”.
Mrs Hawkins said the added cost of transporting pupils to Lerwick would continue to rise as fuel prices increase. The area has a healthy population with plans afoot for many new houses and councillors had to prove that their professed desire for dispersing jobs away from the town was not mere rhetoric.
“Trying to close the Scalloway secondary department is completely the wrong thing to do,” she said, before being seconded by Laura Baisley, having moved that the school should stay open.
All six councillors from the North Isles and the central wards voted against closures in both cases. Central ward member Andrew Hughson paid glowing tribute to the campaign of parents and pupils, saying they were rightly “incensed” and it had been “an honour to be associated with them”.
Mr Hughson said the Blueprint for Education had “grown arms and legs” and councillors seemed to be “making policy on the hoof”. Noting that 44 per cent of the catchment area’s secondary one pupils attend the AHS, he said that in repeatedly raising the spectre of closure the SIC was distorting the figures. He wanted that threat “thrown out for good”.
SIC convener Sandy Cluness was also opposed to closures. Scalloway had a “culture and character” that was important to maintain, its port has potential for major development and new houses could see the population rise. He had been “hugely impressed” with the contribution of parents and youngsters who had “made their case with some skill” and he felt closure would be “premature”.
Education spokesman Bill Manson said the time to take difficult decisions had arrived. While 82 per cent of consultees opposed the closure, he felt many in other areas of Shetland had not spoken out – perhaps feeling they “did not want to rub salt into a wound”. He had heard few complaints from AHS parents about the addition of over 100 pupils.
Mr Manson was also concerned at the “castigation” of the AHS during the consultation. He is satisfied that major replacement of pipes in the summer ensures the Knab building will provide a “comfortable environment for the young folk being educated there”.
Veteran councillor Florence Grains said the main issue was “overprovision”. Scalloway and the AHS were simply “too close together” and it was illogical to have two secondary schools serving less than 1,000 pupils only 10 minutes apart, she said.
Ultimately, many councillors had come to believe Scalloway must shut to safeguard education for all pupils in Shetland. That was reflected in head of schools Helen Budge’s report, which said funding of £212 a year for every primary and secondary pupil in the isles would otherwise be lost.
Those who voted in favour of shutting Scalloway were: Mr Angus, Jim Budge, Alastair Cooper, Allison Duncan, Florence Grains, Mr Manson, Caroline Miller, Rick Nickerson, Frank Robertson, Gary Robinson, Cecil Smith, Jonathan Wills and Allan Wishart.
The nine councillors who voted to keep the village school open were: Laura Baisley, Mr Cluness, Addie Doull, Betty Fullerton, Mrs Hawkins, Robert Henderson, Jim Henry, Andrew Hughson and Josie Simpson.
Following that decision, Skerries parents present could have been forgiven for thinking that the writing was on the wall.
But with projected savings of only £73,000, proponents of closure in this case focused more on the educational merit of teaching children in an environment where they can interact with more people their own age.
That was not enough to persuade councillors. An economic impact assessment carried out at the last minute had shown that two families in the fragile island community, with a population just below 80, intended to leave if the closure went ahead.
North Isles councillor Mr Simpson pointed to the time, effort and money that had gone into revitalising Fetlar in recent years. Shutting the secondary would consign the community to a similar fate and significant spending would be required to revive Skerries, he suggested.
Its economic contribution to Shetland through fishing and salmon were vital, Mr Simpson said. The presence of five full-time fishing boats was “unique in Europe” and demonstrated the community’s tireless commitment.
He was backed strongly by Mrs Baisley and Mr Henderson. Each stressed the economic effects and decried the prospect of sending children aged 11 or 12 to the hostel in Lerwick. “I believe small is beautiful,” said Mrs Baisley, adding the island was “renowned for its self-sufficiency and independence”.
Recalling her days at the hostel, Mrs Fullerton spoke of the “terrible feeling” she used to have on a Sunday night before being taken away from her family for the week. She feared closure would “set in train a depopulation of the island” for the sake of £73,000.
That prompted Dr Wills to stress that the hostel was now a “much nicer place to be”, with staff providing “some of the best pastoral care” you could find. “In fact they’re probably better than some parents,” he suggested, rapidly clarifying he was not denigrating the child-rearing abilities of those in Skerries.
Mr Manson again moved to shut the department, noting: “It’s a graveyard shift job, this one.” His prime concern was the lack of peer interaction available to pupils in Skerries. There were “equally difficult travelling regimes” in place for secondary pupils from other islands, he said.
South Mainland councillors pointed out that the similar-sized population of Fair Isle “does not have a secondary school and does not want one”, in Mr Nickerson’s words. He accepted it was possible that families may leave Skerries, but he was sure the “enterprising attitude” shown would keep the community healthy.
Opponents of closure stressed Skerries’ unique characteristics, with Mrs Hawkins saying the National Trust-owned Fair Isle was an entirely different case. She insisted closure would “ruin an island economy and an island way of life”.
Mr Duncan suggested Skerries could advertise for new families to halt population decline, noting an American family had recently moved to Fair Isle. That led to Mr Simpson joking it would take quite some time to prepare a New Yorker for the rigours of North Sea fishing.
The economic argument, twinned with concern about young children being away from their parents, was enough to sway the minds of three councillors – Mr Cooper, Mr Robertson and Mr Smith – who had voted to shut Scalloway’s secondary.
It meant Skerries eluded closure for the third time in six years and the second occasion in the lifetime of this council. Renewed calls from the community for the threat of closure to be removed for a longer spell are likely to ensue.