The Scalloway community was given fresh hope of a reprieve for its secondary school after the Scottish government announced this week that it will review the council’s decision to close the 116-pupil department.
The government wrote to SIC head of schools Helen Budge explaining it had chosen to intervene because it felt sufficient detail on plans for a new Anderson High School had not been provided. The council’s intention is to transfer village pupils to the existing AHS from August.
It means the SIC cannot implement last month’s decision – taken amid fierce opposition from pupils and parents – before the government delivers its verdict. There is no legal limit on the length of time the call-in process can take.
Education minister Mike Russell stated: “I believe that there is evidence that the council has undertaken a flawed consultation because it is currently impossible to judge the educational benefits of such a move whilst details of the new AHS remain unconfirmed.
“This is an issue which warrants further investigation. I will now carefully consider the Scalloway case further and determine whether or not to grant consent to the closure as quickly as possible.”
Plans for a new school at lower Staney Hill are back to the drawing board and the SIC does not expect it to be ready before 2017. In addition, Mrs Budge last month expressed reservations about how affordable a new school will be.
SIC services committee chairman Gussie Angus said Hayfield officials were seeking urgent talks with the Scottish government.
“The fact is there is no new school,” he said. “All we have is a decision to relocate – not even a sketch plan. They want more information on this new school, which we don’t have.
“All we have is a somewhat bald and ambiguous letter – we need to have a dialogue to find out exactly what detail in this is lacking, because nowhere in the application was there any expectation that the existing bairns of Scalloway would be moving to a new school.”
Although the school’s future remains up in the air, Scalloway Parent Council vice-chairwoman Karen Eunson said she was delighted and felt the call-in justified parents’ strong position that the SIC’s handling of the process had been unsound.
“We’ve said throughout that this is a flawed process,” Ms Eunson said. “Now the government have agreed with that – they can only call it in if it’s flawed. It’s an important vindication for the parent council, the community and the pupils. It’s important that the councillors realise it’s not every decision that’s called in.”
Ms Eunson acknowledged the government’s reasoning for the call-in “wasn’t necessarily what I was expecting”. Parents would be seeking a fuller explanation, but on first reading she believed there was “an implication that there’s going to be improved education for everybody in the new AHS, but since we don’t know what that will be, how can they argue that?”
She added: “There’s an inference that what’s there at the minute isn’t as good as it could be, otherwise why would we be looking for the improvement that is to come?”
Mrs Budge said the schools service had been clear throughout the consultation that it was “not waiting for a new school” and Scalloway pupils would be transferred to the existing AHS building. While “disappointed” the decision had been called in, she was pleased it was “not being called in for wrongdoing in the consultation process or failure to take into account what everybody said”.
During the consultation HMIe said it felt the SIC had failed to outline adequate educational grounds for shutting the junior high. But Mrs Budge pointed to the letter from senior civil servant Michael Kellet, stating the government had been “reassured, to a certain extent” on that count by the arguments put forward in the schools service’s final consultation report.
The optimism of Scalloway parents may have been further fuelled after ministers this week overturned the Western Isles Council’s decision – due to falling school rolls – to shut two primary schools and two secondary departments. Seven Hebridean closures have been ratified. Its leaders reacted angrily, insisting such decisions ought to be taken by community-elected politicians.
It is the first time the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010, which established a presumption against shutting rural schools, has been used in this way. Previous closure decisions called in by the SNP have then been waved through after the relevant local authorities provided more information.
Of 45 representations to the Scottish government relating to Scalloway, 42 had requested the decision be called in and three had asked ministers to rubber-stamp councillors’ resolution. The local authority estimates closure will shed £700,000 from its £42 million annual education budget.
Mr Angus said the closure process was now part of a slow drift of power towards Holyrood ever since 1999.
He said: “The whole thing is so prescriptive – they say that on the one hand it is for you, the local authority, to decide what you do. But if you don’t follow the very prescriptive procedure, we will call it in and we might or might not decide to allow the closure.”
The existing Lerwick school has a maximum capacity of 1,200 pupils and is “perfectly capable” of accommodating Scalloway’s secondary pupils, Mr Angus continued. “Currently the roll is 759 pupils. There has been considerable capital investment to ensure pupils’ pastoral, as well as educational, needs are met in AHS.”
Isles MSP Tavish Scott said the call-in was “good news” for the people of Scalloway, but he was “a bit puzzled” by the government’s rationale.
Mr Russell is under criticism for lobbying SNP councillors in Argyll and Bute, the constituency he hopes to win in May’s elections, to vote against closures. Mr Scott said there was an element of the minister “seeking political cover” by intervening elsewhere.
He added: “From a Scalloway perspective that doesn’t matter – what’s important for parents is that the government are going to review the decision. I will be interested to see how the government relate [the call-in] to a new AHS which is not going to happen for several years.”