Councillors today voted to delay the statutory consultation on the proposed closure of Olnafirth Primary School in Voe until August 2012 following a request by Scottish education secretary Michael Russell for a moratorium on all primary school closures.
The reprieve came after a two-hour debate of the newly-formed education and families committee, in which councillor Jonathan Wills unsuccessfully put forward a motion to press ahead with the consultation this year as planned.
Dr Wills claimed that to stop the consultation process now, for what he deemed were “purely political reasons”, would lead to a five-year delay and kill every opportunity to make savings from school mergers.
He was seconded by councillor Florence Grains, who said the delay only “adds uncertainty” to a process which has already started in the form of an informal consultation. The statutory consultation was due to start in August.
Council convener Sandy Cluness said he had seen the distress school closures caused to communities and he supported delaying the Olnafirth consultation by a year. His amendment, to accept the recommendation as it stood, was carried by six votes to two with three abstentions. Head of schools Helen Budge told the meeting there was other work her staff could be getting on with instead.
A further amendment by councillor Rick Nickerson not to agree to a moratorium but to postpone the consultation was defeated by four votes to six.
However councillors were united in deploring the government’s interference in local affairs in what councillor Bill Manson called “putting a spanner in the works”. They called for Shetland to be represented on the commission that is to be set up to look at school closures.
Dr Wills said that the Blueprint for Education had already shown “beyond reasonable doubt” that Shetland was not making best use of its funds and not promoting equal access to education.
He said: “Now he [the minister] wants us to set up a waffle shop when we’re half-way through. The moratorium is solely to save face and he wants us to set up a waffle shop to save embarrassment. It’s a totally unnecessary delay for purely political reasons.
“There will be a five-year delay and it will kill every opportunity to make savings from mergers. This requirement will make the consequences of the financial crisis worse for all schools; in a few years parents will be asking us to merge schools.”