Council sticks with decision to close North Isles primary schools

SIC councillors have reaffirmed last week’s decisions to shut primary schools in Burravoe and Uyeasound and to retain primaries in North Roe and Sandness, amid ongoing recriminations about apparent inconsistencies in their decision-making.

North Isles councillors were exasperated by the voting behaviour of some Mainland colleagues who had voted to shut Burravoe and Uyeasound but switched sides to ensure schools in their own wards remained open.

Education spokesman Bill Manson was singled out during today’s Full Council meeting, as North Isles member Robert Henderson accused him of being “two-faced” during a heated 90-minute debate in Lerwick Town Hall.

Members voted 12-8 to stick with plans to shut Uyeasound and 11-9 to close Burravoe. Those decisions could still be called in by the next Scottish education minister over the next six weeks. Councillors voted 12-8 and 13-7 to retain primaries in North Roe and Sandness respectively.

Later in the same meeting, councillors voted by an overwhelming margin of 15-5 to stick with plans to shut Scalloway’s secondary department at the end of the current school term.

The decision came after members spent an hour debating a notice of motion drawn up by Central ward councillors calling for the closure to be postponed until the new Anderson High School has been completed. It has a provisional opening date of 2017.

The SIC had voted 13-9 to shut the school back in December and the eleventh hour attempt to revisit the decision was swept aside. On this occasion the council’s political leader Josie Simpson and services committee chairwoman Betty Fullerton both voted to press ahead with closure.

On the primary school front a succession of councillors, including Mrs Fullerton, referred to what appeared to be the “illogical” pattern of voting on closures.

Mrs Fullerton, who had to depart last week’s meeting to attend a funeral after councillors had backed the two isles closures, said she had been “very surprised” to learn that Sandness and North Roe had been spared the axe and said she was “quite disappointed in my fellow members”. “I still can’t believe we’re being so inconsistent,” she said.

Veteran councillor Florence Grains, who voted to shut all four primaries, said she sympathised with North Isles councillors over the inconsistency of the council’s decisions. “I can’t understand the logic either,” she said. Rick Nickerson was another who unswervingly backed closures and he was “astonished at how some members can change midstream”.

Mr Henderson said he felt “aggrieved” and believed the North Isles were being “victimised for the benefit of Mainland Shetland”. He maintains that educational benefits to pupils resulting from the closures have not been sufficiently demonstrated: “Where is the proof?” he asked.

In a dig at education spokesman Bill Manson and other councillors, Mr Henderson said he backed keeping all four schools open “because that’s my philosophy”. Despite not winning mutual support from some West and North Mainland councillors, he said he “wouldn’t lower myself” to voting to shut schools outwith his own constituency.

Mr Henderson’s North Isles colleague Laura Baisley posited the theory that had last week’s decisions been taken in a different order, it might have led to a different outcome. The North Isles closures were approved prior to the debates on the two mainland primaries.

In what was, for the most part, a truncated version of last week’s four-hour debate, Mrs Baisley urged members to reconsider shutting Burravoe and Uyeasound. Again Lerwick councillor Jonathan Wills and South Mainland member Allison Duncan were the most forceful advocates of closures.

Dr Wills described shutting schools as a “miserable business”, but said nobody was being “victimised”. The model of small rural primaries was “very expensive indeed” with the cost of hiring in specialist teachers “increasingly hard to justify”.

He said the education service was already being “cut to the bone” with reductions in teaching staff, cuts to the budget for supply teachers, less spending on in-service training, the removal of knitting classes, the introduction of charges for music tuition and increases in the price of school meals.

“This is very sad – none of us like closing schools,” he said. “We have to face this and we have to face it now. Everyone is going to have to bear their share of the pain.” He added councillors had a duty “not to court short-term popularity” but to make the right decisions for Shetland in order to “save something out of the wreckage of our finances”.

There was a warning of the perils of taking services away from outlying areas from Iris Hawkins. She said the same councillors who lobby against cutbacks imposed by Edinburgh and London should bear in mind that Shetland’s 22,000 people registered as a “very small dot” compared with the rest of the country.

Debate on Burravoe’s future again focused on the condition of the road between the community and Mid Yell. Mrs Baisley said there was “genuine unresolved concern about the transport arrangements” and she failed to see how adding 90 minutes to pupils’ school day could improve their education.

Asked for his input, SIC roads chief Ian Halcrow described the thoroughfare as a “narrow, twisty, poor road” and said improvements including the introduction of safety barriers were definitely required.

Given secondary pupils already travel on the road by bus, Mr Halcrow said upgrades would be required irrespective of the school’s future and he hopes work can commence “in the fairly near future”, possibly by late summer.

Cuts equivalent to an annual £30.70 for every Shetland pupil will have to be found to compensate for the budgeted savings from shutting North Roe and Sandness, with chief executive Alistair Buchan tasked with finding possible cuts before the autumn.

Mrs Baisley said reducing spending by that amount was hardly “deprivation” as it was less than £1 a week for each child and “most kids won’t even notice it”.

SIC convener Sandy Cluness, who tends to oppose shutting schools, and pro-closure councillor Gussie Angus both missed Tuesday’s meeting as they are in Estonia for a meeting of the CPMR (Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions) think tank.

Lerwick councillor Caroline Miller switched sides, saying she had “let my heart overrule my mind” in voting to keep the two Mainland schools open seven days ago. She apologised to the people of Shetland for “changing my mind”.


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