The £25 a week charge for senior pupils staying in the Janet Courtney hostel has been delayed, possibly until after summer. The controversial new charge facing S5 and S6 pupils from the isles and Sandness was due to take effect from 1st April but the procedures are not ready, head of children’s services Helen Budge confirmed yesterday.
Anger about the council’s charge, which is intended to raise £25,000 in the coming financial year towards food and accommodation, is continuing in isles communities and beyond with petitions circulating and at least one councillor vowing to try to get it overturned.
Some people in the isles communities say their young people have no option but to live away from home during the week if they wish to get a good education at the Anderson High School. There is also a fear that the charge, once established, will gradually be increased to help cover the cost of running the hostel, which is put at over £200 a week per resident.
A Facebook protest group started by 16-year-old hostel resident Stuart Ferguson from Unst had 367 members yesterday. There are petitions in the hostel and isles shops and one online, started by former pupil Megan Burns from Unst a week ago which attracted 125 signatures in seven days.
The Facebook group has been alive with angry comments from isles folk and former “hostelites” now living south.
Some believe that the charge is further evidence that the council discriminates against the isles in the same way that central governments are often accused of not caring about remoter parts. Joan Bailey from Unst has coined the phrase “toonie vision” to describe the centralised thinking that the SIC is accused of.
With Uyeasound Primary School having closed and other isles schools under renewed threat the feeling of persecution is set to worsen. And the debate about cutting the inter-island ferry service is still some way off.
The charge was agreed by councillors in a 9-6 vote last month as part of the vast programme of cuts agreed for 2012/13 and beyond. The charge is supposed to save up to £40,000 a year by 2014.
Fewer than 60 pupils in the hostel will be affected, although the number due to come to Lerwick in June for the next school session is not yet known. Means-testing will be carried out in the same way it was done for the introduction of charges for musical instrument tuition last year.
On Facebook, Marina Thomason in Yell called the charge “blatant discrimination”. “How can charging a minority group who have no other options available be equality of provision? To my mind it is the exact opposite,” she wrote.
She asked whether staff members working in the hostel still get their meals free, which she believes is a costly perk not enjoyed in other council workplaces.
The charge is strongly opposed by South Mainland councillor Allison Duncan, who has Fair Isle in his constituency. The six current pupils from Fair Isle and Foula already pay £4 a week to stay on in the hostel over the weekend when almost all the other pupils head home to see their families. From S1 onwards they only get home once every three weeks if they are lucky.
Councillor Duncan said this week that if re-elected in May he would be attempting to lodge a notice of motion to the council with the signatures of six other new members seeking to scrap the hostel charge.
He said he was “extremely disappointed” that his colleagues had voted for the charge which promoted “inequality and double standards”. “I will be opposing that at the earliest opportunity – if re-elected. I feel it is just a tax on island families.”
Mrs Budge said yesterday it was not practical to introduce the charge from 1st April. Those in the hostel going into S5 and S6 will be assessed to see how many qualify for exemption due to low family income. The rest will then have to contacted and payment arrangements made. She said they hoped to start the charging system in June but admitted that “realistically we are probably looking at after summer”.
A full version of this story is carried in today’s Shetland Times newspaper.