The new Anderson High School has moved a tentative step closer to reality after the Scottish government opened the door for Shetland Islands Council to bid for up to two thirds of funds needed to build the major project.
The announcement came yesterday from education minister Mike Russell after a meeting with SIC education and families committee chairwoman Betty Fullerton, head of children’s services Helen Budge and interim head of finance Hazel Sutherland, who were all in Edinburgh to make the case for financial assistance.
Should the council be successful the authority will be able to draw from a £1.25 billion pot from the Schools for the Future programme.
The amount it would get would depend on the outcome of any future negotiations, assuming its bid is successful. But the maximum that could be paid out would be two thirds of the cost.
Mrs Fullerton said she was delighted the trip south had proved successful. “It’s fair to say we had a positive meeting with the minister for education and lifelong learning, and he invited us to enter into the next round of bidding.
“He said that he could give no guarantees, but he welcomed the fact the SIC would be willing to participate in the programme. He said he looked forward to the application on the Anderson High and said he had followed the progress of the project.”
Mrs Fullerton said any agreement which might be reached would be a “partnership deal” between the council, the government and Scottish Futures Trust. It’s unclear at this point whether the money could cover capital or revenue costs.
“I’m crossing all my fingers and toes, but we have to get right into it,” she said. “It is good news, and I hope it will be the first step in achieving a new Anderson High School for Shetland.”
Council convener Sandy Cluness welcomed the latest development for the new school, which has been controversially dogged by seemingly endless delays in getting off the ground.
“This seems to be a good result, and it will advance the potential for a new school that much quicker,” Mr Cluness said.
But while the news has been welcomed, questions have been raised as to why such a move was not made long ago.
Many in the isles have already expressed disbelief after it emerged that no request for government funding appeared to have been made earlier in the project’s history, which stretches back at least 20 years. More recently local authorities in Orkney and the Western Isles have received huge grants towards the cost of new schools.
Mrs Fullerton said she had “no idea” why no funding had been secured from Holyrood before.
“I can’t answer that. It may well have been done in the dim and distant past and the answer’s been no. I’ve just been chair of the education and families committee since May. But we are looking forward, not back.”
The next priority will be to get the council to agree to the plans, which will be discussed by members of the children’s services committee on 5th December. From there, members will make a recommendation to the council.
Possible options that have been put forward in recent times vary between a complete new-build and an extensive refurbishment of the existing building.
“As part of the gateway process and best value legislation, it’s essential that every avenue is looked at,” Mrs Fullerton said. “But the council’s preferred answer is a new-build at the Lower Staney Hill, and that’s the policy at the moment.”
MSP Tavish Scott told The Shetland Times: “If this is new money for the council to build a new high school then that’s fantastic.
“But I’d appreciate an answer to the question that we were always told that if the council took on Scottish government funding it would lose its free-debt status. If the council has now cleared that financial hurdle and can access the finance to get on with the badly needed work then that’s clearly good news.”
Mr Russell stated: “I was pleased to meet with representatives from Shetland Islands Council and confirm they will be able to bid for funding towards the replacement of Anderson High School from the third phase of the £1.25 billion Scotland’s Schools for the Future programme.
“The Scottish government is currently working with the Scottish Futures Trust and ADES (Association of Directors of Education in Scotland) to agree the criteria for the programme, the focus of which will be on issues relating to condition and suitability.
“We are committed to investing in improvements to our school estate and hope to be able to take the third phase forward shortly.”