SIC councillors today voted to shut two island primary schools at Uyeasound in Unst and Burravoe in Yell, but keep two Mainland primaries – at North Roe and Sandness – open.
Provided the decisions, made at a lengthy special meeting of the local authority’s services committee, are ratified at next week’s Full Council and not called in by the next Scottish education minister, it means the 10 pupils at Uyeasound will move to Baltasound and the 11 pupils at Burravoe will go to Mid Yell after the October holidays.
Councillors voted 13-7 to shut Uyeasound, 12-8 to close Burravoe, 11-8 to retain North Roe and 13-6 to keep Sandness open during an at times terse and heated three-and-a-half hour session in the main room at Lerwick Town Hall.
After the meeting Burravoe parent council chairman Steven Brown congratulated the two communities whose campaigns had succeeded but said some islanders now felt “we are being treated as ethnic minorities from the North Isles”.
He criticised the “condescending attitude” of some councillors during the debate and said he did not understand why the treatment dished out to isles communities was different from that given to Mainland areas.
Head of schools Helen Budge kicked off proceedings by pointing to HMIe’s endorsement of her department’s assertion that pupils would benefit educationally from a larger peer group and access to specialist teachers. She reminded members that the isles’ 33 primary schools are running at only 46 per cent capacity and said she believed closures were necessary to provide efficient education for all pupils.
Leading the charge to shut all four small primaries were Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills and South Mainland member Allison Duncan. They repeatedly stressed the dire financial circumstances faced by the SIC, which is looking to save £25 million from its overall budget in the next three years.
Of that, £5 million is to come from the £42 million annual education budget and the two closures agreed today, should they go ahead, will contribute £206,776-a-year. A change in the projected school roll at Mid Yell means it will require a third teacher regardless of Burravoe’s fate, so Hayfield has revised its savings figure up to £110,084. Shutting Uyeasound will save £96,692.
Keeping the two Mainland schools open leaves a £101,606 gap in the council’s budget, which Mrs Budge said would require cuts equivalent to £30.70 for every one of the isles’ 3,300 primary and secondary pupils.
Dr Wills said the closures did not mean “sending pupils into some Siberian exile”. He urged colleagues to “for once take the advice” of professional educationalists who “know what they’re talking about”. He said pupils in Burravoe, for instance, would be of “enormous benefit” to the “much better-equipped” Mid Yell school.
The lobby seeking to resist closures at all costs was spearheaded by the council’s new political leader, Josie Simpson, with vociferous backing from his fellow North Isles councillors Laura Baisley and Robert Henderson.
Mr Henderson said closure would take away “freedom of choice” for parents and called for members to support remote areas “rather than pulling the rug from under our feet”.
He compared the teacher-pupil ratio at Sound and Bell’s Brae in Lerwick to comparable sized schools in Aberdeen where there were fewer staff. “If schools on the mainland can operate with that level of teachers, why do we have so many?” he asked.
Mrs Budge responded that the Scotland-wide 2009 figures Mr Henderson referred to included management and additional support needs staff, which other schools had not included in the statistics they submitted.
In an emotive contribution, Caroline Miller – who later did not support the two Mainland closures – said the Yell and Unst schools simply had to shut because cuts in resources, staff and teaching materials were beginning to damage all pupils’ education and there was now “no slack in the system”.
“We’re getting pretty close to the bone here, folks,” she said. “There is so little money around. Where are we going to find this? Where?”
Mr Simpson, who faced criticism from colleagues for failing to back the regime he is supposed to be heading, vowed to find the requisite savings from other council departments, acknowledging that would be “no mean task” but vowing: “I will face up to it”.
Much contention centered on the rights and wrongs of putting young children on a bus for half an hour or more along winding single-track roads. Mr Henderson described the thoroughfare between Burravoe and Mid Yell as “one of the worst in Shetland”.
In a remark described as “pretty desperate stuff” by Dr Wills, Mr Henderson suggested that if there should be an accident involving the school bus those who voted for closure should “collectively take that on your heads as responsibility”.
Former services committee chairman Gussie Angus said the sort of “twisted single track roads” were no different from those faced by many other rural pupils. He said cuts to every school were “meaningful”, adding: “Every time we dodge these decisions the guillotine has to fall somewhere.”
Mr Duncan – already an unpopular figure in the North Isles – once more referred to the positive impact resulting from closure of small primaries in the South Mainland in the late 1960s. He believes the current programme of closures does not go far enough and wants to see Cullivoe shut too, leaving Mid Yell to serve all of that island’s pupils.
Convener Sandy Cluness and central ward member Andrew Hughson, both of whom tend to oppose closures, were absent from today’s meeting.
In a roll call vote, the councillors who wanted to shut Uyeasound were: Gussie Angus, Jim Budge, Allison Duncan, Betty Fullerton, Florence Grains, Jim Henry, Bill Manson, Caroline Miller, Rick Nickerson, Frank Robertson, Gary Robinson, Jonathan Wills and Allan Wishart.
Those who voted to keep the Unst primary open were: Laura Baisley, Alastair Cooper, Addie Doull, Iris Hawkins, Robert Henderson, Josie Simpson and Cecil Smith.
Every councillor voted the same way on the matter of Burravoe, with the exception of Jim Henry who swapped sides to make the vote 12-8.
Committee chairwoman Mrs Fullerton had to depart the meeting before the remaining two votes, with Mr Manson chairing the remainder of the meeting.
When it came to North Roe, Mr Henry reverted to supporting closure but Mr Manson, Mrs Miller and two of the three West Mainland members, Mr Robinson and Mr Robertson, switched sides. That led to an 11-8 vote in favour of maintaining the school.
The margin for Sandness was even more emphatic, with Mr Wishart and Mr Henry adding their support for the isolated West Side primary. Councillors voted 13-6 to keep it open.
Last year the Accounts Commission criticised councillors’ “marked tendency” to represent the “narrow” interests of their constituency over those of the SIC as a corporate body.
Sticking to the stance she had taken regarding the other three schools, Mrs Grains was the only councillor who voted to sanction the closure of a school in her own constituency. “I accept that I’m a Shetland councillor first,” she said. “We want rural schools but they have to be viable rural schools.”
Backing the retention of North Roe, Mr Manson said it was a fragile community which “just might wither” without its school. He described parallels with the South Mainland as “facile”, before suggesting Dr Wills was so eager on making cutbacks that if Prime Minister David Cameron ditches his chancellor, “he’s going to turn to Jonathan – he’s making savings willy nilly”.
Having taken a consistent position against closure in all four cases, Mrs Baisley launched an attack on members who switched sides to protect their own constituency interests.
She said outspoken proponents of closure such as Dr Wills and Mr Duncan had at least been constant in their position. “I’m shocked, but not surprised at the hypocrisy of some of my colleagues,” Mrs Baisley said, adding: “I’m pretty fed up with some of the bullshit we’ve heard.”
Resident Alan Robertson said Sandness protesters were obviously thrilled their school will stay open, but disappointed for their North Isles counterparts. They have vowed to join the campaign to convince councillors, or failing that the Scottish government, to overturn the closure of Burravoe and Uyeasound.
“I’m delighted that they’re keeping the Sandness school open, but I’m fairly annoyed at the wider rural aspect that they’ve not supported the communities in Unst and Yell, because they’re just as important as North Roe and Sandness,” Mr Robertson said.
He accepted it won’t be too long before Sandness again has to beat off the closure threat. “The only way we can try to guarantee that [it stays open] is to keep our community strong, both economically and socially. The council’s been trying to close the school for 40 years so I imagine it will probably come back, but we’ll fight it again.”
Mr Brown welcomed the lobbying support of “our North Roe and Sandness friends” and said he hoped to be able to persuade the Scottish government that the SIC has not examined viable alternatives.
“Why our economic survey was looked upon less favourably I don’t know, because North Roe’s the fifth most deprived area in Shetland and Burravoe is close behind it in sixth,” Mr Brown said. “The potential for folk leaving if this is not overturned next week is huge.”
He added: “We have to put together a pretty strong argument as to where the SIC and especially the schools service have failed the communities.”