Parents in Burravoe and Uyeasound this week submitted formal written appeals asking the Scottish government to call in and overturn the SIC’s plans to shut small primary schools in each of the communities.
The deadline for lodging a call-in request was Monday, and education minister Mike Russell now has until 27th June to decide whether he thinks there is a case for taking a closer look at the proposals.
Mr Russell’s announcement of a year-long moratorium only kicks in later this month and only applies to new closure proposals. But the two schools’ parent council chairmen, Steven Brown in Burravoe and Derek Jamieson in Uyeasound, are both hoping that the minister will grant them a reprieve. As well as gaining the support of Shetland MSP Tavish Scott, they have asked SNP list member Jean Urquhart to lobby on their behalf.
Last week Mr Russell, who has been fighting to prevent school closures in his own Argyll & Bute constituency, said delivery of education in rural areas was “fundamental to the social and economic make-up of a community”. He re-asserted that communities had a right to “genuine consultation based on accurate information” and pledged to retain a “clear legislative presumption against closure”.
His comments angered local government umbrella body Cosla, which said councils were struggling to cope with funding cuts while upholding the government’s freeze on council tax. Cosla says if the government wants to keep schools open it will need to provide the funding to allow local authorities to do so.
The Burravoe call-in request claims that the SIC failed to carry out a proper consultation. It suggests the original proposal paper to shut Burravoe was “found to be full of inaccuracies, omissions, misinformation and disinformation” designed to “deliberately confuse an already frustrated community”.
In a 16-page document, parents set out fears about children as young as five travelling along a winding single track road to the recently-built school at Mid Yell. They believe pupils will receive a worse educational experience and will be faced with an eight-hour day including travel time.
The quality of teaching at Burravoe is praised in glowing terms, while there are serious fears over the impact closure could have on the vulnerable area. Parents view the closure as a purely financial decision and refer to “constant confusion” over the projected savings, which the SIC now estimates at £110,000. That figure was altered several times during the consultation.
Parents also suggest savings could be made by reducing secondary teaching numbers and cutting central administration costs – measures which the council says it is already carrying out. Another idea is for the two Lerwick primaries at Sound and Bell’s Brae to be merged to save money.
The six-page appeal from Uyeasound parents sets out how the 11-pupil school has, in the eyes of HMIe inspectors, been outperforming the children’s proposed destination, Baltasound. Parents are unhappy that the SIC did not take into account the findings of a recent inspection at Baltasound when voting to shut Uyeasound last month.
They too believe the SIC has failed to examine viable alternatives to closure, as required by legislation brought in by the last SNP government. Parents also dispute projected pupil numbers for Baltasound and Uyeasound, saying the projected roll for the former is skewed by a presumption that Uyeasound will shut.
The document states: “For some parents, this is the fourth time that … they have had to defend Uyeasound School. Yet despite this battering, despite our extreme remoteness, and despite our low incomes, we manage to be an outstandingly good school.”
Uyeasound parents conclude by welcoming Mr Russell’s creation of a commission to examine how education in rural areas should be provided. They describe it as a “wonderful idea” and suggest it would be “a travesty if it happened too late to save one of the very best of Scotland’s very remote rural schools”.
The SIC estimates shutting Uyeasound would save £97,000 a year as part of the schools service’s efforts to shed £5 million from its annual education spend in the space of three years.
Officials argue that having over 30 schools in its estate makes the cost of providing education unsustainable.
Meanwhile councillors are being asked to postpone consultation on the closure of Olnafirth’s primary school until at least August 2012 when they meet next week.
Head of schools Helen Budge is recommending the delay in response to Scottish education minister Mike Russell’s recent imposition of a one-year moratorium on school closures. The SIC had planned to consult on shutting Olnafirth this autumn.
The local authority estimates savings ranging from £65,000 to £114,000 depending on whether parents in the area would prefer to send their children to Lunnasting, Mossbank or Brae.
Members of the newly-constituted education and families committee will meet to discuss Mrs Budge’s report on Wednesday morning.