The SIC is bracing itself for a fresh wave of protests after publishing consultation papers on its plans to shut four small primary schools around the isles as part of its money-saving “blueprint for education” exercise.
Later this month, the schools service will embark on the unenviable task of staging another round of meetings in the affected communities – Burravoe, North Roe, Sandness and Uyeasound. If the closures go ahead the pupils will be transferred to alternative schools following this year’s October holidays.
The schools service is seeking to cut several million pounds from its annual £42 million education budget. It estimates that shutting all four schools, combined with cutbacks at the schools pupils will be moved to, will save between £600,000 and £700,000 a year.
As part of the same exercise, councillors voted shortly before Christmas to shut Scalloway’s secondary department. The Scottish government must announce by next Tuesday whether it intends to “call in” that decision.
Each of the primaries under threat has a roll of between eight and 11 pupils. While acknowledging the high standard of education at each institution, the consultation papers outline that the small pupil numbers means a much higher cost per pupil.
The price tag ranges from just under £13,000 a year for a Uyeasound pupil to £23,616 per head in Sandness. That is well above the Shetland-wide primary average of £6,718 a year, while the Scottish average is only £4,028 a year.
The schools service is grappling with Scottish government legislation introduced last year which is designed to protect rural schools and requires local authorities to demonstrate clear educational benefits of any proposed closures.
Staff at Hayfield House make the case that shutting each small primary will improve children’s education by creating “larger classes and thus more viable cohorts for group learning, activities and sports teams”.
Pupils from Burravoe would be transferred to Mid Yell’s primary department and those in Uyeasound would be educated in Baltasound. Parents in Sandness would have a choice between sending their children to either Aith or Happyhansel in Walls, while North Roe parents could choose either 14-pupil Ollaberry or 20-pupil Urafirth Primary.
Schools staff point out that in some cases pupils are already travelling outside of their community for nursery and secondary education. They say shutting the primaries would substantially reduce the number of “transitions” between different institutions that children have to encounter.
The documents do recognise the potential damage which the small communities could feel, including the direct loss of employment and reduced demand for housing.
In Sandness, for instance, a number of Hjaltland homes have recently been built and there are fears that closure would deter families from living in the area. But in that case, as in others, the schools service believes the extra travel time is “not intolerable for a primary pupil”.
A number of alternative uses for the buildings are identified. In particular, there could be an opportunity to provide offices to allow SIC staff to work outside of Lerwick – something which chief executive Alistair Buchan says he is keen to encourage.
Since councillors voted in June to consult on closing the primaries, parent groups in Burravoe and Uyeasound have expressed anger at the proposals. Burravoe parent council chairman Steven Brown said he believed the local authority was “doing everything in its power” to make living in the North Isles “as unattractive as possible”.
People in Uyeasound have successfully fended off a trio of attempts to shut their school in the past decade. It has started an online petition urging the SIC not to target schools in “fragile rural locations” and look elsewhere for savings, which has gathered 258 signatures to date.
Due to the amount of staff time taken up by the exercise, consultation on whether to shut a fifth primary school, Olnafirth, will not take place until the second half of this year.
Each community will be given the opportunity to have its say at a series of public meetings beginning in Uyeasound on 24th January. The consultation period runs until Sunday 13th March, but the fate of the schools is not likely to be decided until councillors meet in May.
• The papers on all four potential closures can be found, along with electronic response forms, at [ http://www.shetland.gov.uk/education/BlueprintforEducation.asp ]www.shetland.gov.uk/education/BlueprintforEducation.asp.