The Scottish government has advised local authorities that they should avoid consulting on school closures while a commission on the future of rural education finalises its recommendations.
It comes after the Olnafirth Parent Council this week criticised the SIC for leaving its school under threat of closure while it conducts a wholesale review of all schools in Shetland.
Consultation on shutting the primary school at Olnafirth had been due to take place last autumn before education minister Mike Russell imposed a year-long moratorium on all rural closures last summer.
The SIC had planned to set out a timetable for consulting on the closure at the end of this month, but the government’s new advice may force the local authority into a rethink.
A Scottish government spokeswoman said: “Given the uncertainty regarding the outstanding judicial appeal and the Rural Commission’s recommendations, the government fully supports Cosla who have asked councils to use their best judgement and avoid consulting on closures while the commission finalises its report for publication.”
The spokeswoman said it is expected that the Commission on Rural Education’s report will be published “early in 2013”.
In a letter addressed to council convener Malcolm Bell earlier this week, Olnafirth parents expressed their disappointment that “no clear statement has been issued with regards to closure of our school”.
It stated: “We were under the impression that the council had taken the very sensible decision to hold off on any school closures until a clear policy for educational provision in Shetland had been developed. It would have made sense that in order for a meaningful strategy to be developed that it should consider all of Shetland schools.”
The parents want to know why Olnafirth is being singled out for “separate treatment” and why the SIC intends to proceed with a consultation months before the commission’s report is published. The letter suggests the council is acting “contrary to all perceived wisdom” following the Scottish government itself appealing the decision to close schools in the Western Isles.
The letter continues: “We are not unreasonable and would be willing to discuss a properly considered proposal. For this to be the case we feel that any consultation must wait until the commission for rural education has delivered its findings and we must be considered as part of the bigger picture with respect to education provision within Shetland.
“Anything else would appear to be merely paying lip service to the idea of developing a consistent strategy and jumping to the answer the council has already decided upon.”
Speaking before the government’s fresh advice emerged, education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart said a report would go before members at the end of the month setting out a timetable for the statutory consultation on closing Olnafirth, in line with a Full Council decision taken on 6th July 2011.
Ms Wishart said the same meeting would also consider wider proposals to “refresh” the SIC’s blueprint for education, “considering the future of all educational establishments together, not in isolation”.
It is widely expected that fresh proposals to shut a number of schools throughout the islands will be tabled as the council strives to save a further £2 million from its overstretched education budget.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said he had written to the council relating to its responsibilities, but reserved his ire for the SNP government. He hopes Mr Russell might be able to provide some clarity on his visit to the islands later this month.
“I’ve written to [Mr Russell] asking when will this report be produced, and does he plan legislation on the back of it,” Mr Scott said. “Is he going to stall councils taking decisions over schools forever and a day, or is he finally going to decide what his position is?
“There is no point the council making decisions to close schools if the government then pass legislation to stop them doing it. In the meantime you have to feel sorry for pupils, parents and teachers who have to put up with this continuing uncertainty. It’s about time Mike Russell sorted out what his position is.”