A fresh attempt to defy the wishes of the Scottish government and proceed with a consultation on shutting Olnafirth Primary School was comfortably defeated during today’s Full Council meeting.
Education minister Mike Russell announced a year-long moratorium on rural school closures last month, after which the SIC’s education and families committee agreed to suspend plans to consult the community about closing Olnafirth until at least August 2012.
West Side councillor Gary Robinson remains furious with Mr Russell’s move, which he described as a “delaying tactic”. “His law doesn’t do what he would like it to do,” said Mr Robinson. “We’re under no obligation to help the minister out of his mess.”
Mr Robinson is not alone in feeling that the SNP government is excessively interfering with local authorities’ control over education. But his attempt to get councillors to resist Mr Russell’s appeal to halt closures was rejected by 14 votes to four.
The education and families committee discussed the issue for two hours at a meeting last month, and committee chairwoman Betty Fullerton said she felt the correct conclusion had been reached. It was “not politically prudent” to go against Mr Russell’s wishes because the Scottish government “are our masters, whether we like it or not”, she said.
Mrs Fullerton said having to consult the Olnafirth community twice on such an emotive matter would be “unforgiveable”. She revealed that membership of the commission being set up by Mr Russell to look into school closures could be announced later this week.
Those present in Lerwick Town Hall were in agreement that if Mr Russell – who is bitterly opposed to proposed school closures in his own Argyll and Bute constituency – does not want small rural primaries to be shut, the government will have to cough up enough cash to allow the SIC to keep them open.
Mr Robinson won the support of close ally Jonathan Wills, who accused Mr Russell of a “cynical move to set up a waffle shop”. “We must not be cowed by a minister’s whim,” he said.
But the council’s political leader Josie Simpson said there was simply no option but to delay the consultation until the findings of the commission are known. Mr Simpson has consistently opposed shutting rural schools in Shetland, but did agree that if closure decisions were overruled then the government “have to come up with the money”.
Dr Wills said he believed the council’s financial position was “so dire” that Helen Budge, this week appointed as director of children’s services, should be asked to draw up more radical closure plans. He feels the Blueprint for Education exercise, which proposed consulting on shutting two secondary departments and five primary schools, did not go far enough.
Scalloway’s secondary department has closed, while Mr Russell is reviewing the SIC’s decision to shut primary schools in Uyeasound and Burravoe. In the past six months councillors have rejected the closure of Skerries’ secondary department and primary schools in North Roe and Sandness, which were proposed as part of efforts to slash the council’s £42 million-a-year education spend.