The SIC’s proposal to shut Sandness Primary School threatens to rip the heart out of the isolated West Side community, according to parents and residents who turned out in force for a public meeting on Monday evening.
Over 70 residents packed into an overflowing gym hall at the eight-pupil primary school to tell SIC officials and a handful of councillors present of their fears for the community’s future should the closure go ahead.
It is the fourth time in around a decade that Sandness has battled to save its school, which Sandness and Walls Community Council chairman Ian Walterson described as “persecution of a community by its own local authority”.
Those present viewed closure as a short-sighted move which would jeopardise the area’s prosperity for the sake of saving £41,084 a year, less than one per cent of the schools service’s overall cutbacks target.
The case for retaining the primary remains broadly the same as in consultations gone by. Huge pride at the quality of education on offer in Sandness is combined with anxiety at the potential economic impact and considerable angst about the nature of the road into the community.
Sandness sits at the end of a long, narrow and winding single track road and parents believe it would be “dangerous” and “unacceptable” for primary-age children to make an hour-long round trip to the Happyhansel School in Walls.
The settlement’s economy is propped up almost single-handedly by Jamieson’s woollen mill, which employs over 30 people. It has close links with the primary school, with staff able to structure their working day to fit with the school’s opening hours. Some employees work from 9am-3pm, while child carers are able to work in the evenings.
Grave fear was articulated about the firm’s prospects. Garry Jamieson, whose father Peter owns the business, said he “could not express enough” the impact closure could have. If an employee then came to him and said they were leaving in order to live nearer primary schools in Aith or Walls, he “couldn’t argue” with that.
The mill is already trying to cope with rocketing fuel prices and the spiralling cost of raw materials. Mr Jamieson, himself a soon-to-be father, said it was already difficult enough to find staff. He would employ another five people tomorrow if he could find anyone willing, but feels losing the school would “pull the carpet from under the community”.
Sandness is one of four communities – along with Burravoe, North Roe and Uyeasound – engaged in a fight to save its primary school. The closure plans are part of the SIC’s ambitious “Blueprint for Education” exercise, aiming to save £5 million across primary and secondary education from its soaring annual budget.
Head of schools Helen Budge and services committee chairman Gussie Angus laid out the now well-rehearsed case for reducing the number of schools in Shetland from the present 34. A backdrop of falling school rolls and primary schools running at an average 40 per cent capacity was simply no longer affordable, they outlined.
Legislation brought in by the SNP government last year was supposed to establish a presumption against closing rural schools, with local authorities having to demonstrate a clear educational benefit. In this case, the creation of a larger peer group is cited as it would improve the scope for group learning, activities and sports teams. It would also reduce the number of transitions between schools.
Not for the first time, Hayfield’s financial figures came under considerable scrutiny. As previously reported in The Shetland Times it is estimated that the four closures, combined with already approved cutbacks, will save over £600,000. However, direct savings from shutting schools alone will only amount to £291,272 or £296,422 depending on whether North Roe parents would prefer to send their children to Ollaberry or Urafirth respectively.
Sandness parents were given a choice of either Aith or Happyhansel, and there was unanimous preference for the latter at Monday’s meeting. Savings of £12,244 at Sandness and £43,335 at Happyhansel will be made through cutbacks in resources and staffing agreed by councillors last year, irrespective of whether Sandness is shut. The closure alone would save the SIC a projected £41,084 a year.
Resident Alan Robertson queried why the money savings were being stated as £96,664 and accused the schools service of “continually misleading folk”. Several speakers said £41,084 was a paltry sum to pay for the survival of a remote populace, with one saying it was barely the equivalent of “one high-ranking member of Hayfield House”.
Former schoolteacher Lowrie Moncrieff identified that the council’s £23,616 estimate for the per pupil cost of education at Sandness, based on 2009/10 figures submitted to the Scottish government, is on the high side. With an additional pupil at the school in 2010/11, the cost for each pupil this year falls to £18,856.
Mrs Budge said Happyhansel comfortably had the capacity to absorb an extra eight pupils next year. As of November the Walls primary had 42 pupils and an indicative capacity of 78. If Sandness shuts the children would move there after the October holidays.
The roll for Happyhansel next year would then be 51, which is significant as one extra pupil means the difference between a school with two composite classes of 25 pupils and one with three classes of 17 children.
There was evident satisfaction at the healthy number of young families who have moved into Sandness recently. A number of contributors pointed to a school roll projected to more than double to 19 by the middle of this decade. A host of former pupils testified to the quality of education on offer and the special ethos fostered by small-scale learning environments.
Doctor Philippa Veenhuizen, who has spearheaded past efforts to save the school, said it was the best school she had encountered anywhere. Her children had “blossomed” there and she eloquently outlined the importance of intertwined communities.
“The way our society is going reminds me of when I used to play Lego as a child, put block upon block upon block,” she said. “Different age groups are becoming alienated from other age groups. I will expect young people of our community to look after me when I’m an old person, and if we take them out of their community at an early age … we’re going to get an extremely fractured society.
“We can see it happening in Lerwick, in our cities, across the world. Immense social upheaval can happen if we don’t … keep those bonds between young children and the elderly.”
Mother of two pupils Karen Williamson said it made little sense to shut the school before sending in the economic development department to find ways to regenerate the area.
In the same vein, Bertie Jamieson urged SIC departments to “speak to one another” and work together. “They really don’t know what the right hand or the left hand is doing,” he said. “Maybe I could say that sometimes even the right hand doesn’t know what he’s doing himself.”
“Dreadful”, “terrible”, “hellish” and “appalling” were just some of the adjectives used to describe the condition of the nine-mile stretch of road between Sandness and Happyhansel. Community council member Andrea Watt said: “I think Sandness needs to bide open or you need to re-do that road from start to finish.”
Amanda Mercer has three children, one of whom she already sends to Happyhansel for nursery education. Many of those within the SIC favouring closure believe the fact parents send children aged three or four along the same road for nursery education undermines their case. But Mrs Mercer said she only sends her child there three days a week and there are many days when she feels the road is unsafe.
Mr Angus conceded the road was indeed “hellish” but suggested it was not as bad as the one between Maywick and Dunrossness, which raised a few hackles. He did not accept it was a “dangerous journey” and the SIC would not keep a hazardous road open, he added.
Closing proceedings after just over two hours, Mr Angus insisted the SIC representatives present had taken on board what was said. Attempting to pacify those who see the consultation as a fait accompli, he insisted: “I’m not sitting here with a closed mind.”
* The consultation period continues until Sunday 13th March. Response forms are available from the schools service or online at www.shetland.gov.uk. Once the consultation is completed, the SIC will prepare a final report which is expected to go before councillors in May. If they vote for closure the Scottish government has the power to review that decision.