The closure of four primary schools in Shetland would improve the education of pupils and save the council £250,000-a-year but have a significant negative effect on at least three of the communities in question, according to documents released today by the schools service.
The SIC has carried out consultation exercises on the closure of Uyeasound, Burravoe, North Roe and Sandness primaries from October this year, with pupils transferring to Baltasound, Mid Yell, Ollaberry and Happyhansel respectively.
A special meeting of the council’s services committee will take place on 10th May to consider the proposals contained in the official consultation reports published today. Councillors voted last year to close Scalloway Junior High School’s secondary department, a decision that was called in but ultimately ratified by education minister Mike Russell. A further consultation into the proposed closure of Olnafirth Primary School will start in August.
A significant change from earlier reports is that the figures used now exclude already-approved efficiencies and cutbacks at the affected schools, which caused some confusion during consultation meetings in late January. Schools service officials say the figures quoted – tallying £256,695 – refer only to savings based on shutting the four schools and not those which will happen regardless of closures.
Head of schools Helen Budge, whose staff completed final drafts of the report on Monday, said: “We have had a large number of responses and we’re very pleased that folk have taken the time either to attend the public meetings, or to send in written responses.
“We have answered the queries and questions that have been raised … [and] we wanted to provide as much information as we possibly could so that councillors can make informed decisions around the proposals that are on the table in front of them.”
The reports, with appendices, into Uyeasound, Burravoe, North Roe and Sandness can be seen here: www.shetland.gov.uk/education/BlueprintforEducation.asp
For Uyeasound, 236 written responses were received by the schools service. Of these, two were petitions against the proposed closure, one with 167 handwritten signatures and the other with 294 electronic signatures. Of the 236, only two respondents agreed with closure while 167 were opposed.
The schools service contests the claim that closing the school would have a major impact on the community, arguing that since the roll has declined from 18 in 2001 to just 10 this year – a 44 per cent fall – the fact that there is a school does not necessarily sustain the number of families living there.
And while it acknowledges the exceptionally high standard of education provided at Uyeasound, the service argues that closure would bring educational benefits to the pupils – a claim backed up by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education (HMIe), officials from which visited Unst as part of the consulation.
The inspectors believe pupils would have “better opportunities to learn together and engage in social activities with others of similar age and stage”. The pupils would also be educated in a modern, fit for purpose building at Baltasound Junior High with dedicated social and dining facilities and adequate toilets.
They would no longer need to transfer back from Baltasound which most children attend as nursery pupils and then back again to Baltasound for secondary education in S1 to S4.
HMIe also argues that at a time of over-capacity in primary schools in Shetland the closure proposals in general would allow the council to make more “efficient and equitable use of its resources to the benefit of children and young people throughout its area”.
The financial saving from closing the school is estimated at £96,692-a-year, net of the £4,341 it is predicted it will cost to provide school transport. The maximum journey time pupils would face would be 19 minutes there and 19 minutes back, according to officials.
In response to a request made at a meeting in the Uyeasound hall in January as part of the consultation, the schools service commissioned a socio-economic impact study by Nairn-based economist Steve Westbrook with Sandy Anderson.
The study concludes that in an economy that has already suffered from a major reduction in employment over the last two decades (from the closure of RAF Saxa Vord and the airport among other things), the closure of the Uyeasound school will “impact more seriously proportionately in one of Shetland’s most needy areas than in the islands as a whole”.
The direct impact would be the loss of around £90,000-a-year in income from the loss of teaching staff. The school’s head teacher and at least two other families have indicated they would be likely to move away from Unst should the school close.
“With affordable housing difficult to obtain in Uyeasound, the population of the area would tend to fall over time should the school close with less demand from families to live in the area. Future growth within Unst would tend to focus on Baltasound …”
For North Roe, 188 written responses were received during the consulation, with just four agreeing with the closure proposal and 172 opposing it.
The schools service argues that because the roll at North Roe has fallen from 14 in 2000 to eight this year – a decline of 43 per cent – the existence of the school is not a determinant of the number of families who live there.
Officials estimate that the financial saving from closing the school to be £46,702-a-year, net of the £11,839 it is predicted it will cost to transport children to Ollaberry Primary School. The journey will take a maximum of 35 minutes, they say.
However, in their report to the schools service HMIe inspectors, who visited North Roe as part of the consultation process, said parents, some of whom questioned the estimated journey time, were justifiably concerned about the travel arrangements.
“In taking forward the proposal [to close the school], the council needs to take reasonable steps to minimise the impact on children of the additional travel which will be necessary,” the inspectors argue.
The schools service believes that closing North Roe would offer a number of educational benefits to pupils, including increased peer contact and interaction, a better quality learning environment and increased opportunities.
But the HMIe inspectors contend only that closure would not have a detrimental impact on children’s educational experiences. This is because pupils at North Roe, Ollaberry and Urafirth “currently follow a well-balanced curriculum … [and levels] of attainment in the three schools are broady comparable”.
“The council has yet to explain clearly the educational benefits of its proposal. In taking the proposal forward, the council needs to clarify the educational benefits that will accrue to pupils directly affected … and how the benefits will be realised.”
As with Uyeasound, a socio-economic impact study was carried out for Northmavine, which estimates a direct loss of £100,000-a-year through the loss of school staff, although that would be offset by additional staff requirements at Ollaberry.
Mr Westbrook notes: “Closure of the primary school would take away the main motivation for young people and families to seek to live in the local area. This in turn would tend to increase further the proportion of elderly people in the community, reduce the stimulus for regeneration and lead to homes which become available being taken by older people and those looking for a holiday home.
“These impacts would have potentially serious effects on the long-term sustainability of the economy.”
Following January’s consultation, it appeared that additional transport costs and the need for an extra teacher at Mid Yell to accommodate Burravoe’s pupils would cut the hoped-for savings from shutting the school to just £25,000 each year.
But the schools service’s revised estimate of £58,397 in annual savings – vastly reduced from its initial figure of £114,000-a-year – is based on using an existing bus service taking pupils to Mid Yell.
The local authority had looked into providing an extra bus route, which would have meant shelling out around £38,000-a-year. That would have meant relatively paltry savings from shutting Burravoe, but the SIC says there is enough capacity on the existing bus service taking other pupils to Mid Yell – the downside being that the maximum journey time for a pupil rises from 32 minutes each way to 45 minutes.
Of 83 responses to the Burravoe proposal, an overwhelming 89 per cent were against with just two per cent in favour.
HMIe’s report identified that parents, staff and pupils in the area “strongly oppose” losing their school. The inspectorate’s report states there would be “some potential benefits” for children moving to Mid Yell, including more social interaction with people of similar age and more regular access to specialist classes and staff.
However, HMIe said the council “has not fully explained the educational benefits claimed and how they will be realised”, and stated that parents were “justifiably” concerned about the travel costs and transport arrangements.
Mr Westbrook’s study shows that almost a third of Burravoe residents work outside Yell, mainly commuting to jobs in Lerwick or at Sullom Voe. Among his findings are that shutting the school would discourage families with young children from living in the area.
He also believes closure would continue the trend towards an ageing population and reduce the pool of local staff for private firms seeking to develop their businesses. Mr Westbrook suggests those young adults continuing to live in the island will increasingly gravitate towards Mid Yell, though the potential for Enertrag’s 12-18 turbine windfarm does provide some optimism for the area’s future.
Mr Westbrook’s conclusion on the impact losing its school could have on the fragile Sandness community makes for stark reading: “Closure of the school is a threat to the longer term sustainability of the community, and potentially, of its major employer [Jamieson’s Spinning Mill, which employs 31 people locally]. Closure, or a major reduction in employment at the mill, would be a devastating blow to the local and wider economies.”
Given that Skerries’ three-pupil secondary was saved from the axe by councillors on the back of a report outlining similarly grave implications for that community, Mr Westbrook’s conclusion may give the West Side area fresh hope that the school will be saved.
The mooted cost savings also proved a bone of contention in Sandness during the consultation period. The SIC’s new estimate is £54,904-a-year, which is higher than the annual £41,084 savings figure of three months ago. That is primarily due to £8,000 of economies resulting from no longer having to transport school meals prepared at Happyhansel to Sandness each day.
The figures also take into account an estimated £18,203 in transport costs. Parents had been given a choice of sending their children to either Aith or Happyhansel, but the former option was ditched in line with parents’ unanimous view that Happyhansel would be a more convenient alternative.
Three-quarters of the 72 respondents were against the proposal, with only six per cent favouring closure. HMIe’s report discovered that parents, staff and pupils were happy with the quality of education on offer and did not want to lose their school.
The inspectorate’s March report called on the council to make clear the claimed educational benefits of closure and clarify its financial calculations. HMIe did note that closure may “enable the council to make more efficient and effective use of its resources to the benefit of learners in the wider community”.
Schools officials state that the school’s eight pupils would benefit from daily access to a larger peer group and more “focused” delivery of education, while it would also lead to a “more viable cohort of children for a variety of group and team activities”.