Direct financial savings from closing Burravoe’s 11-pupil primary school could be as little as £25,000 a year, it emerged at a consultation meeting in the south-east Yell community on Wednesday night.
In its proposal paper the SIC said it hoped to save £114,332 a year by shutting Burravoe, with a further £113,538 to be saved through already agreed cutbacks in staffing and resources regardless of whether the school remains open.
In the document, transport costs were “yet to be quantified”. But head of transport Michael Craigie confirmed, to evident surprise from the audience, that bussing children to Mid Yell would have an estimated price tag of £40-45,000 a year. It left Mid Yell teacher Ronnie MacLean sitting “slightly gobsmacked here”.
In addition, the schools service had hoped to save money by reducing the number of teachers at Mid Yell from three to two. But the increased pupil roll caused by accommodating Burravoe pupils would mean a third teacher would still be required, stripping a further £44,233 from the projected annual savings.
It means direct savings from shutting the school could be only £25,244, while the combined amount to be saved from cutbacks at Mid Yell and Burravoe irrespective of closure will be £157,626.
The Scotland-wide staffing formula being introduced as part of the Blueprint for Education exercise stipulates that composite classes containing children of different ages must be no larger than 25 pupils. Transferring Burravoe’s 11 pupils to the new Mid Yell school, where they would be taught alongside the larger school’s existing 43 pupils, would require three classes of around 18 children.
Mr Craigie told The Shetland Times rising fuel prices made estimating future transport costs “very unpredictable”. But he had taken a detailed look at how to transfer children from Burravoe and concluded it would be around £45,000 a year. He stressed the consultation was “part of a continuing process” and not about concealing information from the public.
“We’re offering information that we know best at a particular time,” he explained. “Some people may feel there’s a wish to hide things, but that’s not the case. It’d have been easy for me to say I don’t know [the cost], but that would be insincere.”
Wednesday’s meeting – a fairly cordial one given the emotive topic – was held in the school’s multi-purpose room and chaired by local councillor Robert Henderson. An assortment of parents, teachers and residents united to tell the SIC’s panel of officials they were, in the words of parent council chairman Steven Brown, “fully against” the closure of their “tremendous” school.
A short presentation from quality improvement manager Audrey Edwards set out the context in which closure was being mooted. With £38 million of the council’s £131 million budget going on education, Hayfield is being asked to save £5 million over a three-year period. The council is grappling with a reduction in its block grant from the Scottish government as it strives to maintain its oil reserves at or above £250 million.
Mrs Edwards acknowledged that earlier informal consultations made clear that no community in Shetland wished to lose its school. She highlighted, though, that maintaining 34 schools (including the re-opening Papa Stour primary) was simply not financially sustainable.
Burravoe has fought off previous closure proposals and Mr Brown hit out at the “hours and hours spent re-organising over the years”, which he felt was done to massage “certain egos in Lerwick”. Everyone in Shetland was well aware of the financial constraints the SIC faced, but he suggested primary schools were not the problem.
Several glowing tributes were paid to the school’s highly-regarded head teacher Caroline Breyley, with community council chairman Dan Thompson describing her as the most dedicated teacher you could wish to find. Her pioneering work on the Scottish education IT system Glow was singled out for praise.
Mr Thompson said the consultation document was “flawed” and seemed “designed to influence” councillors, from whom he called for “more understanding and vision”. He said too many elected members exhibited a “couldn’t care less” attitude to island communities, referring to South Mainland councillor Allison Duncan. He has called for Yell’s lifeline ferry service to be cut so it stops operating at the end of the working day.
“Nobody wants to see people lose their jobs, but it probably needs to happen,” suggested Mr Thompson, adding he would make no apology for being extremely critical of the SIC. He said the local authority was trying to “browbeat parents into submission”.
The condition of the eight-mile single track road up the east side of the island from Burravoe to Mid Yell was condemned. Community councillor Laurence Odie said he was “horrified” at the thought of parents having to put children as young as five years old on a bus, saying the road badly needed upgrading but had only had “some cosmetic surgery” in recent years.
It has been suggested that if Burravoe parents are willing to send their children to Mid Yell for nursery and secondary school they should have no issue doing so for primary education too. Mr Odie, however, said there was only 25 per cent usage of Mid Yell’s nursery among residents, whereas a preschool morning at Burravoe got more than 90 per cent attendance.
Mr Odie, and others, said they did not want to reduce the number of transitions children had to go through. He saw it as a valuable life experience: “Every time they take a step, they’re taking a bigger one – I think that’s an advantage,” he said.
The community has also requested, and will get, a socio-economic impact study. Such a report in the case of Skerries’ secondary department appeared to prove instrumental in persuading a majority of councillors to vote to keep it open in December.
Head of economic development Neil Grant said construction of Total’s £500 million gas plant could have a favourable impact on Burravoe as it was “sitting on the threshold” of the development. As reported last year, the area is also being scouted out by renewable energy firm Enertrag, which is keen on building a windfarm of more than a dozen turbines in the south-east corner of Yell.
Mr Brown questioned how much his, and others’, properties would decline in value if there was no longer a primary school nearby. Disappointment was expressed that, while there has been a lot of private investment in housing, no new local authority properties have been built for many years.
During periods of heavy snowfall leading up to Christmas, it was pointed out that Burravoe was able to remain open when most other Shetland schools shut. When it did have to close, Ms Breyley ensured that homework was distributed to pupils.
Head of schools Helen Budge acknowledged that weather-related closures had been more frequent due to severe conditions this winter and last. The schools service is keen that as many schools are able to open as possible during snowy weather rather than decreeing blanket closures from Fair Isle to Baltasound, she said.
Along with Mr Henderson, the other two North Isles councillors, Laura Baisley and Josie Simpson, were both present. Each nailed their colours firmly to the mast, with Mrs Baisley saying islanders should be proud of the quality of education available.
“I’ve not seen any evidence that small schools don’t provide as good an education as larger schools,” she said. “Regardless of the community reasons for keeping them open, they’re doing a damn good job educationally.”
Mr Simpson said he had stood at the last election on a platform of protecting rural schools. “You can count on me,” said the SIC’s vice-convener. He believed a lot of “very valid” points had been raised during the meeting.