Councillor and parents angry at consideration being given to AHS refurbishment
A veteran SIC councillor has joined several parents of Anderson High School pupils in dismissing the council’s examination into whether the existing school buildings could be refurbished as a waste of time.
Former chairman of the council’s services committee Gussie Angus also said the new school – first conceived of back in 1991 – had been “bedevilled” by bad advice. He fears the brief for the project remains seriously flawed, leaving the SIC “on the verge of making another booboo”.
He was speaking following a presentation from council official Selwyn Schofield, whom the local authority drafted in last year to work on the project, to the AHS parent council on Monday night.
Mr Schofield explained he was putting together a report to go before councillors on 9th November setting out three options for the school as part of what is known as the “gateway process”: doing nothing, refurbishing the existing school or, as councillors agreed back in 2009, building a brand new school at lower Staney Hill.
There is considerable frustration from many quarters that relatively little progress has been made in the intervening two years. Several parents said they did not understand why the refurbishment option was being looked at, even as a “technical exercise” for the purpose of comparison.
One parent described it as “an absolute nonsense” and a “complete non-starter” which could have a “potentially devastating impact” on children’s education. One piece of blunt advice was that the council might as well “bale all the work you’ve done out the window and start again”.
Mr Schofield said dozens of meetings had taken place as part of a thorough programme of research, encompassing meetings with a host of local organisations and going outwith the isles to speak to other local authorities about their experience of building new schools. Advice has been sought from York University about the refurbishment option.
Though plans are at an early stage, councillors’ preferred option would see a new building slotted in around the rugby pitch at Clickimin. Instead of having to excavate big chunks of the Staney Hill, the plan is to build up the slope at the foot of the hill – “using, rather than destroying, the topography”, in councillor Angus’ words.
A “do nothing” option would not be disruption-free as a lot of maintenance work would be necessary to keep the buildings fit for purpose, Mr Schofield pointed out.
The refurbishment option which proved immediately unpopular among many of the 30-odd people present at Monday’s meeting could take up to seven years to complete. Among a number of ideas is bringing the Bruce Hostel back into use as a halls of residence, with the asbestos-laden buildings which house the music and home economics departments being pulled down. Those subjects would instead be taught at the vacated Janet Courtney Hostel, while a new main entrance would be created at the back of the school.
Mr Schofield stressed that no particular option was being pushed by officials, but said that under the “gateway process” it was necessary to have something to compare the new school against to demonstrate the council was getting value for money. He was not advocating a refurbishment, but simply outlining that it was “technically possible”.
Parent Neil Risk said it seemed clear that doing nothing was not an option, and he felt a refurbishment involving shuffling departments “hither and thither” would lead to a school which will be “severely compromised”.
“It seems to me you’ve been carrying out a technical appraisal of an option that may not work at all,” he said. “It’s putting the cart before the horse. Maybe I’m just thick, but I don’t understand it at all.”
He continued: “It seems to me a new school has a lot to recommend it. I think Shetland owes it to the children to give them the best possible start in life.”
AHS parent council vice-chairwoman Sarah Taylor questioned how the refurbishment could be “credible” if teaching staff were not closely involved in drawing up the parameters.
Mr Angus was concerned there had been little development of the brief since earlier in the project’s chequered history. He fears the scope remains “fundamentally flawed” and, while accepting it would be technically possible to refurbish the existing buildings, he said that did not mean it was viable without damaging the standard of education.
Mr Schofield stressed he was simply seeking to present the “true picture” to councillors, setting out the facts in a “truthful, straightforward manner”. “We know the preferred option would be a new build,” he acknowledged.
Parents also heard from the council’s acting head of finance Hazel Sutherland on possible funding options. Both Orkney and Western Isles councils managed to secure substantial funding for new schools in the past decade, but that avenue appears to have been closed off now. It is understood that SIC chief executive Alistair Buchan was astounded to discover that no approach had been made to the Scottish government for funding to build a new AHS.
Ms Sutherland said selling council-owned land and/or buildings could raise some of the money needed. Alternatively the local authority could go into debt to build the school, but it would have to demonstrate to lenders why it needed to borrow when it has £250 million in the bank.
A strong possibility remains that a previously-agreed “sale and leaseback” deal with Shetland Charitable Trust will be pursued if councillors decide to press ahead with the school.
Under that arrangement the council would build the school and sell it to the trust, then repay the money over a period of 30-40 years. For a school costing £45 million that would mean repayments of around £3.2 million a year, for £30 million around £2.1 million a year or for a £15 million school it would be £1 million a year, Ms Sutherland estimates.
Mr Angus said it would also be possible for the charitable trust to build the school as a gift to the community. He pointed out that the trust’s investments had plummeted following stock market tumbles in the past decade, adding he couldn’t think of a better investment than a new high school for the isles. “It is Shetland’s money,” he said. “At least with a school it’s an asset and you’ve got something to show for it.”
He reminded everyone that until 2003 the council had intended to build at lower Staney Hill, only to change its mind following what later transpired to be duff advice that it would be much cheaper to build at the Knab. Four years later the estimated cost had more than doubled and that price tag no longer included a new halls of residence.
Mr Angus said that government agency Architecture and Design Scotland (A+DS) had been “very critical” of the basic designs for the school when it was drafted in late in the day to examine the proposed school at the Knab. “We’re two years on having been advised of this in great and particular detail, and absolutely nothing has changed since 2009,” he told The Shetland Times. “That’s a great disappointment to me, and a source of frustration.”
He continued: “The other disappointing thing to me is they’re still paying insufficient attention to a design for additional special needs, a growing school population which we’re really not planning for appropriately.”
Ms Sutherland said it would be up to councillors to decide whether a new school was still affordable given the straitened economic circumstances. It would not necessarily mean further cuts to the education budget alone – the money could come from the SIC’s fund for capital projects, or by making cuts to other services.
Some parents questioned how it was that Western Isles Council, which has virtually no cash reserves to draw upon, could be building new high schools in Lewis and Harris and three new primaries for a combined £60 million, yet the oil-rich SIC was unable to get its act together to build a new standalone secondary.
Just before the meeting drew to a close after an hour and 50 minutes, those present were reminded by Ronnie Eunson of numerous empty classrooms sitting in Scalloway following the closure of its secondary department in the summer. That prompted South Mainland councillor Allison Duncan to re-assert his belief that big savings could be made by “closing primaries in that locality” and converting the secondary department into a “super primary”.