The Aith community turned out in huge numbers last night to deliver an overwhelming display of opposition to the SIC’s plan to look at shutting its junior high school in two years’ time.
Last week the council published radical proposals to shut five secondary departments and five primary schools as part of efforts to save £3.25 million a year from its under-pressure budget.
Over 150 people descended on the community hall for a hastily convened two-hour session during which the council’s new education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart was left under no illusion as to the strength of opposition in Aith.
The SIC’s rough estimate is that shutting the 98-strong secondary department and transferring its pupils to the Anderson High School from August 2014 would save £690,000. All the proposals will be considered by members of the education and families committee tomorrow. Many of those present called into question the validity of the savings estimate, and pleaded for more detailed information to be published on the additional transport costs and the finance needed to house a few outlying pupils in the hostel in Lerwick.
Head of schools Helen Budge confirmed today that the £690,000 figure does not factor in the added cost of transporting pupils to Lerwick. She said more detailed sums would only be calculated if councillors approve the plans.
The council’s plan – with the exception of Mid Yell – to ditch the junior high model which has served Shetland for over 40 years hinges largely on a new AHS being built. If that cannot happen, councillors and officials acknowledge it will be forced to rethink longer-term plans to shut other junior highs by 2016.
When Bob Cree-Hay pointed out that a verdict on the council’s application for funding towards a new AHS is due in September, it prompted several parents to query why the SIC is seeking to press ahead and sanction closure consultations in the meantime.
Aith Parent Council chairman Jeremy Sansom kicked off the meeting by saying that, while there had been a “cloud” hanging over the school for some time, he had been “startled” that the proposed closure date is only two years away.
Current legislation requires councils to demonstrate a clear educational benefit to shutting schools, but Mr Sansom said: “It’s no secret that these closures have very little to do with educational merit – it is quite clear that financial considerations are what is pressing through.”
While stressing she believed pupils would still continue to receive an excellent education, Ms Wishart was open in agreeing that finances were the driving force. “Of course it’s about money. If we had a bottomless pit, I wouldn’t be here and neither would you,” she told those gathered.
She said the SIC was in an “impossible position” where it had to make colossal savings in the next five years or risk emptying the oil reserves. “The plan is to reduce the school estate by taking the junior high schools into Brae and the Anderson High. This is the only way you can make these major savings. Do you want us to go broke, end up five years from now with no money and leave future generations with nothing left?”
Worried parents outlined a range of concerns, including the long travel distances faced by pupils from the age of 11 or 12 and the damage closure could wreak on the wider West Side community.
Fears of depopulation were voiced, and some folk are already wondering what the loss of secondary education could mean for Aith’s leisure centre. Former school teacher Jim Nicolson said it was not in the best interests of children to be travelling on a bus for around two hours a day. He said the programme of closures being put before councillors felt “almost akin to an attack on rural areas”.
Mr Nicolson spoke for many of those present by saying it seemed as if those who had not caused the council’s financial crisis were being punished for the inability of successive councils to get spending under control. “It’s a great pity if it’s the rural schools, pupils, communities who are the ones suffering from what’s going on.”
One Skeld parent who has two primary-age pupils said the time spent travelling on a bus to Lerwick rather than Aith would amount to 5-10 hours a week where children were not learning to cook, keep their bedroom tidy, serve on crofts or learn about fishing.
“It scares me that cost savings, very attractive now, will have far-ranging effects into the future, and once they’re realised people will only be able to look back with regret,” he said, to warm applause around the hall. Aith is the first of the bigger junior highs in line for closure, based on Hayfield officials’ belief that the existing AHS has sufficient capacity for its roll of around 100 pupils.
A few contributors from the floor called that into doubt. Some queried what the endpoint would be: if the secondary department closes, one woman asked whether that would be “just the first notch in the bedhead”, the beginning of a “domino” effect where the SIC goes on to try and shut smaller West Side primaries in favour of a super-primary in Aith.
Some wider gripes were aired, including a few grumbles about the amount of public funds poured into Lerwick-centric “vanity buildings” such as Mareel and the new North Ness council offices.
One woman said that when the Commission on Rural Education had been in Shetland at the start of 2012, it had been mentioned that the Borders region had been “very successful at reducing costs in schools without shutting any”. She wondered whether the council had explored whether lessons could be learned. Other ideas included making better use of technology and looking at different models of teaching, while one individual suggested that bussing pupils from all over Shetland into Lerwick made little sense given the need to reduce carbon emissions as part of the fight against climate change.
Mr Sansom rounded off the meeting by thanking all those present, including Ms Wishart and three other SIC councillors, for taking the time to attend.