The SIC looks set to ditch its unpopular plans to introduce charging for senior pupils who board at the Janet Courtney Hostel when attending the Anderson High School.
Councillors voted 9-6 at February’s budget-setting meeting to press ahead with the £25-a-week charge, despite a warning from South Mainland councillor Allison Duncan that it risked creating a two-tier education system.
Over 400 people signed up to a Facebook page objecting to the means-tested charge, which was to have been imposed on the parents of many S5 and S6 pupils.
The levy had been due to be introduced before now, but was delayed in March. Councillors will next week be asked to abandon the plans altogether – a move sure to prove popular among those living in small islands.
In a report going before the Full Council next Wednesday, head of children’s services Helen Budge says that “detailed legal analysis” concluded it would only be possible to charge for pupils’ boarding in “very specific circumstances”.
Instead, Mrs Budge’s report suggests finding the £22,750-a-year savings from a small reduction in secondary school staff. She would still retain the power to charge for anyone staying at the Janet Courtney as a result of a placing request.
Mr Duncan, who previously branded the charge a “tax on island families” and a “damned disgrace”, told The Shetland Times that he considered the imminent reversal a “victory for common sense”. It would have affected his Fair Isle constituents.
“What it really means to me is that there will be no inequalities for the young folk attending the halls of residence,” he said. “I’d like to take the opportunity to thank all the officers, members and parents involved for reaching an excellent and satisfactory conclusion to the matter.”
John Irvine of the Mid Yell Parent Council said he would welcome a decision to drop the charge, because pupils from island schools had no option other than to attend the AHS if they wanted to continue their education beyond fourth year.
“The potential hardship for hardworking families of finding an extra £100 a month may end up being the deciding factor of whether their children continue education past S4,” Mr Irvine said. “It’s an aim of our parent council to promote equality between our pupils and those in the rest of Shetland.”
Mrs Budge said the fact that some S5 pupils are not eligible to leave school until after Christmas would have resulted in a scenario where “you’d have so many you would be charging and so many you would not”.
She couldn’t entirely discount the possibility of looking again at introducing charges for sixth year pupils, depending on how “tight” budgets are in the future, but for now the idea is to look elsewhere for the savings.
Back in February, the then education and families committee chairwoman Betty Fullerton had been content that the charge was simply to cover the cost of food. She contended that it would make the system fairer, because parents with children who stay at home throughout the school week already have to pay to keep them fed and watered.
But islanders protesting against the charges argued that it was unfair to allow pupils on the Mainland to travel home five days a week using free buses, while imposing a new charge on their children who are away from the family home all week and already in need of extra “spending money”.