The Scottish government is expected to reach a decision on whether to approve the SIC’s proposed closure of Scalloway’s secondary department within the next fortnight.
There is growing agitation over the length of time the decision is taking, particularly among pupils and staff who would be directly affected. The proposal is for secondary pupils at the village to be transferred to the Anderson High School in Lerwick following the summer holidays, but time is fast running out for the necessary measures to be put in place if the closure is given the green light.
A government spokeswoman told The Shetland Times that education minister Mike Russell was still considering his options, though she anticipates a decision will be announced before parliament is dissolved at midnight on 22nd March ahead of this May’s Scottish elections.
“There’s a process that the government will go through,” she said. “Mr Russell will announce the decision as quickly as possible, but obviously there’s a lot of evidence that has to be weighed up.”
The minister announced in mid-January that he believed there was evidence the council had undertaken a “flawed consultation” because it was “currently impossible to judge the educational benefits of such a move whilst details of the new AHS remain unconfirmed”.
SIC head of schools Helen Budge said she understood the frustrations of those affected by the decision. The council formally responded to Mr Russell’s call-in on 25th January, some seven weeks ago. There is no legal limit on the length of time the process can take.
“I certainly understand how staff, parents and pupils in both schools must be feeling at the moment,” Mrs Budge said. “It’s very difficult for everybody concerned, not just in those two schools but across the whole authority because of the uncertainty over what any decision might be.”
Should Mr Russell choose to overturn the closure, councillors would be faced with three options. They could accept the ruling and agree to reverse the council’s policy, call for a judicial review or face up to the unappetising prospect – for staff and community alike – of another round of consultation meetings.
If the closure does not go ahead it will create a financial headache for the local authority, which has included estimated savings of £707,000 in its cost-cutting plans for 2011/12.
Realistically savings in the next financial year will be much less than that, partly because the secondary department will remain open for at least three months until the end of June.
Some of the savings from shutting Scalloway will also take around two years materialise, while parents protesting against the closure dispute that the savings will amount to anywhere near £707,000 at all.
Scalloway parent council vice-chairwoman Karen Eunson acknowledged it was a “very hard” and “difficult” time for children and teachers in particular, but said she hoped the lengthy review period was the precursor to some good news for the community.
“We’re all desperately waiting to hear, but we would rather they made the right decision than a quick decision,” she said. “We know there’s no time limit on this bit. We’ve provided them with a lot of information. We’re glad if they’re taking the time to read it and make a well-informed decision and we’re very hopeful it’ll be a positive decision for the school.”
Mr Russell has been criticised for involving himself in planned closures in Argyll and Bute, where he is standing as a candidate in May’s elections. He has tried to stress that was in his capacity as a parliamentary candidate rather than as Scottish education minister.
However, if he did approve the closure of Scalloway it is difficult to see how that could be reconciled with a statement he made about Argyll and Bute earlier this month. On learning of that local authority’s revised proposals for 12 school closures, Mr Russell said: “I am sorry that the council administration still seems hell-bent on closing good schools in Argyll and Bute.
“There is a better way forward that does not involve the wholesale destruction of high-performing and much-valued schools and my party would be happy to work with them and others to secure that better way before further damage is inflicted on this fragile area.”