Scalloway parents have reacted with dismay to the news that the village’s secondary department is to shut, after Scottish education minister Mike Russell formally approved the SIC’s deeply unpopular planned closure this morning.
A short letter from the government to the local authority stated that after “careful consideration”, the minister had concluded that the SIC had fulfilled its obligations under the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 and given “unconditional consent” to implement the closure.
The secondary department will remain open until 30th June, with S1-S4 pupils to be transferred to the Anderson High School in Lerwick following the summer holidays.
Those who launched a passionate campaign to save the secondary had been hopeful that Mr Russell would overturn councillors’ decision after he called it in in January. At that time he said he believed there was evidence the SIC 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”.
Services committee chairwoman Betty Fullerton, who voted to keep the school open back in December, said: “The support by ministers of the decision to close Scalloway School’s secondary department demonstrates governmental support for the council as the struggle to save money and sustain quality education continues.
“Local people have worked hard to demonstrate their appreciation of the school and how much it means to the community. I know that they will be hugely disappointed at the outcome. I know that staff, parents and pupils of Scalloway School will be very disappointed with the decision and I thank them for the hard work they have put into the school over the years.
“All council staff in the Blueprint for Education exercise have also worked very hard throughout and I pay tribute to their dedication to the job in hand. I’m confident that the process to move the pupils will now be taken forward with the least disruption to pupils possible.”
The SIC hopes the closure will eventually lead to £700,000-a-year savings, though parents who protested against the closure vehemently dispute the figures produced by Hayfield House.
Vice-chair of the Scalloway Parent Council Karen Eunson, who fronted the campaign to save the secondary department, said everyone was “devastated” by today’s announcement.
“The community was utterly united in supporting the school,” she said. “Across the whole of the central mainland we had parents and pupils involved from Tingwall, Whiteness, Burra, Scalloway – community groups, businesses all in support and making representations.
“We had the support of the local MSP and representatives from each political party. Everybody was speaking with one voice, saying this was a crazy decision with no educational benefit and it’s very galling that’s been ignored nationally now as well.”
Ms Eunson said it felt like a bad time to be living in rural Shetland amid public spending cutbacks, with the village also fearing for the future of its doctors’ surgery following the arrival of a private pharmacy. “This doesn’t bode well for rural Shetland, and the central mainland is being particularly badly hit,” she said.
The priority now would be to ensure the transition to a different school would be as smooth possible for the pupils, Ms Eunson said. She called for the schools service to work closely with parents, who would seek to work with staff in “as positive a way as we can do”.
Last autumn emotions ran high over the closure, but Ms Eunson said the concerns expressed about the AHS largely related to the state of its building. The main cause of upset was the prospect of losing their community school, she said.
“I think all parents, while arguing Scalloway should be open, will have been saying to their bairns that the AHS is not a bad school and they’ll get on okay. There will be a long way to go to make that transition smooth – trying to integrate a group of bairns who’ve had a very difficult experience and have been under a lot of stress and pressure.
“The pupils will be very upset today, but I would hope that they would all value the experience they have gained from being involved in this. They’ve done wonderfully well.”
She added there would now inevitably be fears for the future of smaller primary schools in the central mainland amid speculation that Scalloway will be turned into a “super primary”.
Head of schools Helen Budge said: “The decision that’s come through today demonstrates that the process that we followed is in line with the schools consultation act. As councillors have said, nobody wants to close a school or a secondary department, but we are in difficult times and the schools service is constantly being asked to make further cuts.
“I hope that this will assist with the sustainability of the school estate and for the future of the young folk across the whole of Shetland.”
Mr Russell has recently faced criticism over his involvement in planned closures in Argyll and Bute, where he is standing as a candidate in May’s elections. In a statement which appears difficult to reconcile with today’s decision, the minister last week he criticised Argyll and Bute Council for appearing “hell-bent on closing good schools”.
He said: “There’s 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.”