The last-gasp bid to stop the closure of Scalloway’s secondary school was swept aside by councillors with a 15-5 vote on Tuesday after several members admitted they now saw no problems fitting the extra 116 pupils into the Anderson High School.
Even one of the three members who represent the Scalloway area, Betty Fullerton, voted against the bid to keep the school open until the new AHS is built after receiving assurances that the existing Anderson High is fit for purpose.
Those who were calling for the closure to be delayed, which could be for seven years or more, believe the high school lacks adequate social and dining space.
Mrs Fullerton was defiant in the face of threats at the weekend from people seeking to pressure her to toe the line and vote with her two Shetland Central colleagues Iris Hawkins and Andrew Hughson.
She was indignant about messages she was bombarded with on her Blackberry mobile phone, which she said included threats that she was “finished” if she did not vote to keep the school open. She was warned that “this time next year I won’t be here”. She told her colleagues: “Quite frankly last night I was thinking ‘Bring it on!’”.
In another surprise move the council’s political leader, Josie Simpson, the vice-convener, also voted against the rescue bid after provoking anger earlier this month when he added his name to the attempt to change the council’s closure decision made in December.
On Tuesday Mr Simpson told the Full Council he had backed the notice of motion because he judged that the issue deserved another hearing due to the strength of feeling expressed from the Central ward. He rebuffed calls for him to resign due to his actions but added: “I apologise if I’ve caused anxiety.”
The anger that greeted the move by seven councillors to challenge the closure decision was partly due to the false hope it gave to Scalloway supporters but also because of the further damage it has done to the council with its reputation for sabotaging itself and being unable to stick to a democratic decision.
Councillor Allison Duncan again called on four of the signatories – convener Sandy Cluness, Mr Simpson, Mrs Hawkins and Mrs Fullerton—to resign their senior positions within the local authority.
Mrs Hawkins made no apology for fighting Scalloway’s corner. She said when the closure decision was sanctioned by the Scottish government in March it had been likened to a death in the community. But when the notice of motion was put forward earlier this month she was told it was like that person had come back to life.
In her speech she said the AHS was a tired building with little recreational space or equipment, such as the pool tables enjoyed by Scalloway pupils. Compared with Scalloway it had little room for children dining.
If the secondary department was kept open the £707,000 a year which the council would be unable to save could be found elsewhere in the education budget, including from cutting teachers at the AHS and not going ahead with building the extra social space.
In fact, the argument about social space turned out to be something of a red herring after Mrs Fullerton quizzed head of schools Helen Budge about the differences between the two schools. She explained that at meal times in the AHS (once the Scalloway pupils move in) there would be the same 1.4 square metres of social and dining space per pupil than the combined primary and secondary at Scalloway currently has and nearly double what the Meldrum Academy in Aberdeenshire has.
Mr Simpson was similarly reassured that there should be no congestion problems following a visit to the Lerwick school. However, the statistics were disputed by Mrs Hawkins who said there was double the amount of space in Scalloway because primary and secondary pupils have different meal times.
Mrs Budge also appeared to satisfy Mrs Fullerton that a wider range of both subject choices and level of qualifications would be on offer to Scalloway pupils at the Lerwick school, contrary to some claims.
Concerns about asbestos and dodgy electrical switch gear at the decaying AHS were also allayed by council engineer David Williamson who said the asbestos was being managed and the switchgear had been changed, to avoid faults rather than for safety reasons.
Backing the bid to keep Scalloway secondary open, Mr Hughson said the projected savings had now almost evaporated due to the failure to cut teaching jobs as had been pledged plus the extra £53,000 cost of new social space being built at the Anderson High. He called on members who supported Scalloway’s case not to be bullied into voting for closure.
According to the schools service if Scalloway secondary did stay open the council would need to pay for it by losing 15 teachers or cutting spending for every pupil in Shetland by £212.
Mr Duncan, backed by councilor Jonathan Wills, was adamant that the council had to stick to its decision of December to close the secondary with pupils moving to Lerwick from 17th August. To go back on it now would destroy any remaining confidence in the council and further damage education staff who he said must already be at their wits end after carrying out the work needed to effect the transfer between schools after summer. Of the 21 staff at Scalloway, 17 are already in line for early retirement, redundancy or transfer.
Mr Duncan accused Mrs Fullerton of not having the courage of her convictions to sign the notice of motion which she had been involved in drafting. He urged her to “get off the fence”, not realising that she was actually about to vote for his side, finally giving her public backing to the closure decision that the committee, which she was vice-chairwoman of, had originally taken and which she had voted against at that time.
Dr Wills sympathised with her over the threats, saying he had taken some abuse too, not least from one of his own relations. He claimed some pupils from Scalloway were “very enthusiastic” about the move to the Anderson High and none of them had mentioned the lack of pool tables as a concern.
Councillor Gary Robinson said he had been told by parents that they would put their children to the AHS now regardless of whether Scalloway secondary was saved.
Councillor Allan Wishart was one of the members who had visited the AHS at lunchtime to see for themselves whether the school might cope with more pupils. He said he was greatly reassured, having found it to be “smooth, calm and organised” with the pupils appearing “content and happy” with their surroundings.
Councillor Rick Nickerson said the notice of motion was nothing but “an extremely cynical attempt” to overturn the democratic decision of the council in the faint hope that the threat to its future would be bounced into the next council following the elections in 2012, when it might somehow survive. He was very disappointed it had been brought forward and it made the council look silly.
With all the talk about overcrowding, Mr Robinson said when he was a pupil at the AHS in the 1980s there were nearly 1,100 on the roll, making it a lot more cramped than it is nowadays. He also reminded councillors that every pupil at the Whiteness and Weisdale Primary School had been entitled to go to Scalloway secondary but every single one each year chose the AHS instead.
Councillor Bill Manson said over 40 per cent of Scalloway’s potential roll elects to go to the Anderson High instead.
Councillor Frank Robertson believes the new AHS will not be ready until 2018 at the earliest and he warned that if Scalloway secondary was to stay open until then the council would have to build its long-promised new science block costing around £5 million, on top of the council not being able to save the £700,000 a year it expects from the closure.
The delayed closure would also mean the whole statutory consultation process would have to be gone through again, Mr Manson said.
Councillor Caroline Miller called the motion a “no-brainer”, saying that while the high school did have problems two years ago they had been solved by maintenance work and extra social space.
On a roll-call vote those who backed December’s closure decision were: Mr Duncan, Dr Wills, Mrs Fullerton, Mr Simpson, Mr Manson, Mrs Miller, Mr Nickerson, Mr Robertson, Mr Robinson, Mr Wishart, Jim Henry, Cecil Smith, Jim Budge, Alastair Cooper and Florence Grains.
Those who supported delaying closure until the new AHS is built were: Mrs Hawkins, Mr Hughson, Robert Henderson, Laura Baisley and Addie Doull. Absent from the meeting were Mr Cluness, who had signed the notice of motion, and Gussie Angus.