Warm glow of admiration (Jonathan Wills)

Those councillors who voted on Tuesday morning not to close the North Roe and Sandness primary schools will no doubt be basking in the admiration of supporters who believe they’ve stopped the Evil Ones in Hateful House “tearing the heart out” of their communities.  The warm glow will be short-lived. Hopefully, by the time the Full Council meets on Tuesday 17th, to receive the report from the services committee, even these members will have realised just how inconsistent and irresponsible their well-meaning votes were.

What they’ve actually done is slash the budget for each and every one of Shetland’s school pupils, including those at the schools they’ve “saved”. The precise figure, as a result of Tuesday’s vote, is £31 per pupil less for head teachers to spend on books, equipment and furniture. Not just next year, but every year thereafter. That’s on top of the £21 per pupil they’ve already cut from the teaching materials budget, Shetland-wide, by keeping the Skerries secondary department open.

These local heroes will soon be hearing from the parents of children at the other schools in their wards, probably long before the May 2012 council election that was in the minds of some at the meeting. They’ll need to explain why every school in Shetland is now £52 per pupil worse off, due to the £170,000-worth of savings they could have made but chose not to.  They won’t be able to blame anyone but themselves, because they all voted a while back for the council policy that these savings must come from the education budget if some schools were not closed. Personally, I’d take the £170,000 off vice-convener Josie Simpson’s development committee budget, in perpetuity. But that’s not council policy and, as the vice-convener tells us so often, we must stick to council policy.

Like the other would-be saviours of their communities, the vice-convener has undermined hard-working council staff by ignoring their expert advice, rubbishing their figures and treating them with contempt. Those of us who hope to be re-elected next May will have to clean up the mess, and what a mess it will be. But it seems there’s no point reminding some members that the council faces a £25m budget deficit next year. That’s before we take into account any settlement with the Lerwick Port Authority over the Bressay Bridge legal fiasco, or the potential liabilities of the Shetland Towage pension fund, which between them could add at least £10m to the bill. These figures are truly alarming and in due course will make this week’s vote irrelevant. That’s because we’ll soon be forced to reduce budgets for all schools to a level where parents will be demanding school amalgamations (or voting with their feet, through parental choice), as the only way to preserve equal access for all to the best quality of education we can afford.

I’ve come to the conclusion that you needn’t bother taking a carefully argued case, based on factual evidence, to committee or Full Council. Such meetings have largely become charades. The votes have often been decided in private chats and phone calls some time beforehand. That’s how our council operates under the current, unreformed political administration. That’s why I’ll be making my own contributions to this crucial debate entirely in public from now on.

Cllr Jonathan Wills
Town Hall,


Add Your Comment
  • Phil Allman

    • May 10th, 2011 20:04

    I’ve just read both the lengthy article about the vote and then this piece by Cllr Wills. As a visitor to your beautiful islands around 2 years ago who was visiting a teacher friend (as a Headteacher myself) I was taken aback by the quality of provision in Sandness (where we stayed), Mid Yell (where we visited) and Cullivoe (where my friend then taught).

    I understand from my own professional perspective that cuts in budgets have to be made, and I understand that some of the councillors may well not have wished to be the turkeys who voted for Christmas. However, I am experienced enough to think that senior education officers of councils are rarely as ‘expert in their field’ as they would have those of us in the profession believe. I saw, as an outsider, first hand the impact of local services not existing in Sandness and how difficult travelling on those single track roads can be.

    If the entire school population has to bear the cost of the decisions then I would contend there should be a collective sigh of relief that schools at the heart of those communities are not dispensed with. Mr Wills appears frustrated by the apparent self interest of some councillors and local communities, but surely a lack of recognition that larger schools should not bear some of the burden could be seen as an equal level of self interest from those nearer to the more built up areas of the mainland itself.

    Shetland should be justifiably proud of their educational landscape – cost saving should be looked at through the uses of new technologies NOT closures. To separate those children from their localities would do far more long term damage than the provision wide budget cuts suggested.

  • Marina Thomason

    • May 10th, 2011 21:40

    I am chair of the Cullivoe Parent Council. We had a meeting last night and discussed how the reduction in money per pupil will affect the pupils. The general consenus was that we will fund-raise to help make up the short fall. A chippy night at our local hall can make around 300 pounds and with a raffle thrown in around 500 pounds.

    I know this would be more difficult for bigger schools to raise the necessary money but luckily, we are a small school and I’m sure our community will pull together.

  • Phil Smith

    • May 11th, 2011 10:04

    The problem with the council is their inconsistency on all matters.
    If they’re not careful they will be replaced with a puppet council set up by central goverment.
    They are a laughing stock, and the people of Shetland deserve better, before it is too late.

  • Kenny Pottinger

    • May 12th, 2011 12:39

    I think it is pathetic for a councillor to be making comments like this in public and stirring up schools and communities against each other. The Accounts Commission report which Councillor Wills keeps referring to also warns that council business should not be played out in the media. The £52 represents less than 0.8% of each childs education, which I feel will not even be noticed by the pupils. Unlike for pupils at schools which are being closed who will certainly feel a huge negitive impact. If savings must be made lets spread the pain. Lerwick Parent Councils are very selfish to support closures in rural schools just to protect themselves. Do Lerwick parents even know that the people representing them wrote letters supporting all the closures?


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