The idea of bussing Lerwick pupils to schools outside the town in an effort to tackle high class sizes was floated during a public meeting on Tuesday night.
Parents and teachers from all around the isles were among a 70-strong congregation at Sound Primary School to give evidence to the Scottish government’s commission on rural education.
The commission has been tasked by education minister Mike Russell with examining how problematic 2010 legislation on rural school closures works in practice, and what can be done to improve it.
Attempts by the SIC to shut a number of schools have caused huge angst in the communities affected, and much of the hour and a quarter session focused on the well-aired arguments for and against closures.
Several speakers from outlying areas including Burravoe, North Roe, Sandness and Uyeasound said it felt as if their communities were being picked on and their concerns were not listened to by the local authority.
Bell’s Brae parent council’s Emma Williamson pointed out that pressure on the capacity of Lerwick’s two primaries is growing, partly due to a high number of placing requests from outside the town.
It is increasingly commonplace for parents who commute to the town to drop their children off at a Lerwick school, and Ms Williamson said if better childcare existed then more pupils could be taught in their own communities.
A classic case is Bressay, whose primary school is at less than one third of its capacity – chiefly, town councillor Jonathan Wills said, because parents commuting to Lerwick for work take their kids with them due to a lack of childcare. In the Czech Republic, where his son lives, schools open from 8am to 5.30pm to provide “wraparound care” and allow parents to do a full day’s work.
Commission chairman David Sutherland heard there were very few instances of Lerwick parents requesting a place for their child at a school outside the town – something that does spring up in other parts of Scotland, he said.
Stressing that she was speaking as an individual rather than on behalf of the parent council, Ms Williamson said: “If bussing some pupils out of Lerwick was beneficial to both communities I wouldn’t, personally, have a problem with that.”
Parent Adaline Fullerton pointed out that classrooms had lain empty in Scalloway since its secondary department shut last year. Why not close Bell’s Brae, expand the village’s primary and bus town pupils to Scalloway instead, she suggested.
Mr Sutherland, who works as a sheriff in the Highlands, explained that the commission was set up jointly by the government and councils’ umbrella organisation Cosla. It is visiting all local authority areas where more than half of schools are classed as “rural”, which in Shetland’s case is all of them. It hopes to publish its findings in August once all the evidence has been compiled.
After a trip to Burravoe in Yell on Tuesday, commissioners were due to visit Olnafirth and Sandwick’s junior high on Wednesday before flying back to the Scottish mainland.
Last month’s budget-setting exercise saw the outgoing council ask officials to “refresh” the local authority’s “blueprint for education” in a root-and-branch review of the whole education service. That is widely expected to result in a fresh programme of closure proposals in the second half of 2012.
• For full coverage of Tuesday’s meeting see this week’s Shetland Times.