Councillors are being urged to opt for a slimmed-down new high school at the lower Staney Hill to maximise the chances of securing Scottish government funding for the project.
A long-awaited 96-page document from the SIC’s capital programme team will go before members on Monday. In a covering report, children’s services director Helen Budge recommends seeking up to two-thirds of the funding from a national bidding programme.
An SIC delegation met education minister Mike Russell last week and were encouraged to apply for money from the Scottish Futures Trust when a new funding scheme opens in early 2012. Outside assistance would be a major boon for the local authority as it grapples with major budget cutbacks.
Indeed, Mrs Budge says a like-for-like school is “not affordable in the current economic climate” due to the financial impact such a large project would have. The only way it can be afforded, she suggests, is by securing government cash.
The exhaustive study has examined four options: doing nothing, refurbishing the existing high Anderson High School, reverting to plans for a new school at the Knab or – councillors’ clear preference – building a new school near Clickimin.
Though the outline is for a 17,400 square metre school costing an indicative £43 million, Mrs Budge points out funding can only be secured if the council sanctions a design in line with “national standards”. An 11,000 square metre school to house around 1,000 pupils would cost an estimated £30 million.
Experience elsewhere, she said, suggested the average grant awarded for building schools in Scotland is around 60 per cent of the total cost. Though there is no guarantee an SIC bid will succeed, if it were awarded £18 million that would leave the council to find the remaining £12 million towards the capital cost.
Mrs Budge also recommends that a new halls of residence for isles and remote pupils – costing £9.4 million – is not pursued for now. She advocates taking “full advantage” of leisure facilities at the nearby Clickimin complex.
The feasibility report proposes that the new school be built on a SLAP-owned parcel of land adjacent to the rugby field. Excavation would be minimised by building on the relatively flat land at the foot of the hill and by “stepping the building up and along the contours”. A survey has indicated that the underlying rock and soil “should support a three-storey development”.
Mrs Budge told The Shetland Times: “What I’m proposing is that we consider looking to bid for funding from the Scottish Futures Trust, but that will reduce the size of it. We’re not sure what the formula will be, but it will be a smaller build.”
That does not discount bolting on extensions or particular facilities at a later stage. It is hoped funding from sportscotland can be secured to build astroturf pitches for the school and the wider community – a development local footballers and hockey players have wanted for years.
Mrs Budge states that doing nothing is not an option because the existing Knab buildings “cannot support the long-term delivery of a quality education service” much beyond the next 15-20 years. Councillors have wrestled with plans for a new school since 1991, and the feasibility report acknowledges that maintenance of the existing one has been “historically low” as a consequence.
There was some consternation among parents over the inclusion of a refurbishment option in the study during an AHS parent council meeting in early October. Those fears may be mollified by the new findings.
Although at a cost of £36 million it would offer the “best value for money”, a lengthy and phased refurbishment involving the conversion of existing buildings would be “disruptive to the education of a generation of pupils”.
An all-new Knab school is included merely as another “comparator” to the preferred location. No new work has been done on this, other than an estimate that the price tag for re-activating an earlier construction contract would be around £46 million including inflation.
Irish builders O’Hare and McGovern were days away from starting to build a new Knab school before councillors’ abrupt u-turn in June 2009. By the end of that calendar year, the SIC had spent more than £5.6 million on five different school designs with nothing to show for it.
The most recent change of heart followed a groundswell of support for switching to the lower Staney Hill, largely because having a building site next to a functioning high school for several years was unpalatable for most parents.
Capital programme officials Selwyn Schofield and Robert Sinclair have canvassed widely, talking to eight SIC departments, Shetland Recreational Trust, SHEAP, local authorities in Orkney and the Western Isles, four English councils, environmental body Sepa and York University.
Some councillors are frustrated at the lack of progress in the last two years, while members of the public have suggested the extensive route looking at other options was a waste of time. Council officials insist the “gateway process” used for all major capital projects is an essential tool to prevent past oversights and mistakes being repeated.
Mrs Budge said: “The council remitted us to do a full option appraisal using the gateway process. That is what we’ve done [and] because we’ve done that, we can say ‘actually, this is the better option’ [and] we know that to refurbish on site in a particular way won’t work.”