Parents in the four communities which face losing their primary schools later this year have reacted with dismay to new documents published by the schools service this week, which advocate closing the schools to save the SIC £250,000-a-year.
The papers suggest that shutting the schools in question – Burravoe, North Roe, Sandness and Uyeasound – could improve the education of some pupils, but economic studies show closures would have a significantly negative impact on the affected communities.
Councillors will be asked at a special meeting of the services committee on 10th May to sanction the closures, effective from October this year, with pupils transferring to Mid Yell, Ollaberry, Happyhansel and Baltasound respectively.
A significant change from earlier reports is that they now exclude figures on already-approved efficiencies and cutbacks at the affected schools, which prompted accusations of “misinformation” from angered parents during consultation meetings in late January.
The new figures – tallying £256,695 – refer only to savings based on shutting the four schools and not those which will happen regardless of closures. Officials estimate that closing Uyeasound would save £96,692 annually, while shutting North Roe would reduce spending by £46,702 each year. Closing Burravoe would save an estimated £58,397 and shutting the doors at Sandness would cut £54,904 per annum from the budget.
Elected members voted in December to shut Scalloway’s secondary department amid huge opposition in the village, a decision that was called in but ultimately ratified by Scottish education minister Mike Russell. A further consultation into the proposed closure of Olnafirth Primary School will start in August.
It is all part of the SIC’s blueprint for education exercise, aimed at cutting £5 million from its huge annual education spend over the next three years. Head of schools Helen Budge said the council simply could not afford to maintain 33 schools in Shetland without damaging the education of pupils throughout the isles.
Uyeasound Parent Council chairman Derek Jamieson said he was “disappointed” that the local authority appeared to have “ignored” what parents, staff and pupils told them during the consultation. He pointed out that shutting his community’s school would account for just two per cent of the schools service’s overall savings package.
“It’s pretty much what we expected,” he said. “They seem to be saying the same thing again. They’ve not really listened to the consultation and there are points they’ve not answered. It’s such an insignificant amount they’re going to save in the overall scheme of things, for the damage they’re going to do in closing those four schools.
“There are points [about educational benefit and transport] that they’ve not answered about the costs and how it’s going to work. The economic study was carried out fairly well – a fair reflection on the situation and the impact it’s going to have on the community.”
Mr Jamieson, who is father to three pupils, said he had “totted up” the voluntary hours put in by the parent council and calculated it to be worth around £30,000-a-year. “That’s the kind of folk they’re disheartening with this kind of thing,” he said. “You start wondering what you’re doing and why you’re doing it – there’s not much sympathy or understanding from the council.”
Burravoe parent council chairman Steven Brown said he was still digesting the latest reports but was “puzzled” that the council is no longer looking at a second bus route. “What they said originally was that the road wasn’t suitable for a big bus, but now it’s suddenly alright because it was going to cost a lot of money,” he said. “It will affect education in the winter months because the big bus just doesn’t travel.”
He continued: “Even with the savings that they have laid out, I don’t think it will justify closing the school. The social impact study that was done quite dramatically says that there’s a huge potential for a major downturn in the whole area. The outer lying areas are getting deprived and we will not see any development going on here. There’s very little assistant from the development department in Lerwick and I see no way of that ever changing.”
Garry Jamieson, who has lived in Sandness all his life and hopes to see his six-month old baby educated in the community, said he was “disappointed” and felt officials had noted but not responded to concerns raised during the consultation.
“The concerns of the community have been listed in the report, but they’ve not actually been answered,” he said. “That’s not consultation as far as I’m concerned. They’ve not justified why they think it’s okay to send a four-and-a-half year old on a bus along a single track road in the middle of winter.”
Mr Jamieson said it was already difficult enough to recruit staff to work at the mill, a problem which “will inevitably become worse” if the school is lost. He said the socio-economic impact report had “nailed it”: a gross turnover of £1.4 million was impressive for such a small community and, given what Sandness puts back into the Shetland economy, “surely it’s worthwhile keeping on going”. “It’s a peerie place, but there’s a lot going for it,” he added.
North Roe parent council chairwoman Fiona Laurenson said the community was “disappointed” that more of their comments had not come across in the proposal. There is particular angst about the proposal to shut the school in October, meaning P7 pupils will have to change schools twice in less than a year.
“The roads are shocking in winter,” she said. “There’s a quality of life that we have up here, we’re very privileged: our bairns can ride their bikes or walk to school. They’re not going to be able to do all their afterschool activities because by the time they win home and do homework it’s teatime.
“It will have a drastic effect on this community. I would hope that the councillors can see past the money side of it and look more at the community side, the effects it will have. I know it’s only a few children, but every bairn is important.”
Ms Laurenson said some councillors had accepted an invitation to visit the area next week. “It’d be fine if more could come and get a feel for the school, and a right look around,” she said. “How many of them have actually been to North Roe?”
Mrs Budge acknowledged there had been overwhelming opposition in all four communities to the proposed closures. But she said her job was “to provide a quality education for all of the bairns across Shetland” and if the four schools remain open, she will have to find £250,000 “on top of all the other savings we already have to find elsewhere”.
Addressing the “perception” of some that Hayfield House is rather well-stocked with staff, Mrs Budge pointed to £114,000 in savings which have resulted from not replacing two retiring senior officials, along with cutting clerical hours.
Shetland Liberal Democrat candidate Tavish Scott is calling on councillors to give “serious consideration” to the concerns of parents, particularly about the travel implications for young children, and the “wider impact” on the communities involved.
He said: “I met parents and school parent councils in Burravoe, Uyeasound, North Roe and Sandness in recent months. I have made a formal submission to the council
on behalf of parents, pupils and teachers passing on the serious concerns about the details and figures behind the council’s closure proposals.
“What also shone through clearly during the meetings I had is that the schools whose future is in question make a substantial contribution to island life well beyond their immediate educational role. The Westbrook report[s into the socio-economic impact of the closures] … make it clear that the closures would be damaging to the communities the schools serve.”
Meanwhile Labour candidate Jamie Kerr said he thought the prospect of rural primaries being shut was “shocking”.