Council to begin consultations on school closures but Baltasound JHS safe for now

Shetland Islands Council has voted to consult on school closures and prune its education expenditure by over £3 million.

Members of this morning’s crunch meeting of the SIC education and families committee voted 5-4 in favour of pressing ahead with the plans.

However, Baltasound Junior High was taken out of the consultation process at the last moment following an intervention from David Sandison. He argued the Unst school should be saved because of the council’s previous commitment to it in justification for closing Uyeasound which shut its doors for the last time in 2011.

Closing Baltasound alone would have resulted in a saving of £520,371, according to current indicitive figures. Taking it out of the consultation will trim the expected saving of £3,558,405 down to £3,038,034.

The meeting followed an updated report presented by head of children’s services Helen Budge, which outlined the requested transport costs at £391,408. It pressed for consultation on the closure of secondary departments in Aith, Skerries, Sandwick and Whalsay, as well as Baltasound, and primary schools in Burravoe, North Roe, Olnafirth, Sandness and Urafirth by 2016.

Mrs Budge argued that not making the difficult changes would ultimately result in a poorer standard of education for all pupils in the isles. Members were told maintaining the status quo would effectively mean £1,000 in education being taken away from every child in Shetland.

Peter Campbell said closing the schools would threaten rural communities. He said the prospect of closing schools was particularly sad given that it came just days after the funeral of former education committee chairman Bill Smith, who was responsible for setting up the junior high model in Shetland.

Mr Campbell said: “It’s sad we are here to consider the dismantling of the education service he was instrumental in establishing.” He said it was hypocritical of the council to, on the one hand claim Shetland was a peripheral area and, on the other fail to look after its own peripheries.

Mr Campbell warned of a “drift in population towards the central area of Shetland” and he called for the council to control its budget by setting out its priorities rather than putting school pupils at a disadvantage.

Political leader Gary Robinson, however, “reluctantly” supported the motion moved by chairwoman Vaila Wishart. He said he did not like what councillors were being asked to do, but insisted the council had little choice.

Mr Robinson insisted spending on ferries or social care would have to be cut by half if difficult decisions were not taken over the school estate. Staffing schools, he added, represented 86 per cent of the cost. “This is not about town versus country. It’s about delivering the best education we can afford.”

Mr Robinson highlighted previous attempts over the last 10 years to close schools, which the council had repeatedly shied away from. “It’s been said you should measure twice and cut once. In reality we have measured several times, but seldom have we managed to make any cuts.”

Allison Duncan was not convinced closing schools would have any detrimental impact on communities. He pointed to his own area in the South Mainland, where five schools were closed some 41 years ago.

Mr Duncan said: “Thank goodness they had the foresight to do that. It did not damage childrens’ education. It enhanced it.”

Jonathan Wills said the junior hgh model had been right at the time of its introduction. But he insisted school closures were essential if the SIC was to curb its spending.

Dr Wills said: “The last two council administrations spent 57 per cent of the reserves. The 43 per cent that remains is earning a quarter of what it used to earn.”

He insisted the council was “not sending pupils to a prison camp” by closing schools and asking youngsters to go elsewhere in the isles for their education.

Many councillors were concerned about the possible impact travelling extra distances would place on children.

Billy Fox was less than pleased by the extra travelling times closure of some schools would bring to many pupils. “I would never, as a parent, be happy for my bairns to travel on a winter’s day for an hour or an hour and a half to get to school,” he said.

There was also concern that a study of transport timetables had been carried out as a “desktop exercise”.

Steven Coutts said he, as a pupil in Unst, had experience of travelling on a bus and two ferries to get to his lessons in Brae. He said growing use of fibre optic technology could help provide lessons more cost effectively. He was concerned sending more pupils to stay in the hostel would deprive them of many of an adequate family upbringing.

George Smith supported the motion but urged that further reports be brought to the committee, should the council decide to prioritise its spending in a way which could ease the pressure on the education budget.

Gary Cleaver moved an amendment, calling for the consultation to be dropped. He feared the impact school closures would have on children through travelling times, and argued for the junior high model to be refined rather than ditched.

Mr Cleaver lost the argument to Ms Wishart who insisted there was room for manouevre in the proposals.

In the dying minutes of the meeting Mr Sandison successfully moved that Baltasound be removed from the consultation.

After the meeting Mrs Budge said: “I’m pleased they had the debate today and I think there were some valid points that were made.”

The Full Council will now be asked to ratify the decision to press ahead with the consultations at its meeting next Thursday.


Add Your Comment
  • Jason Quinnell

    • September 15th, 2012 11:29

    I am so pleased to be living in an era when our children will be able to occupy themselves on a bus for approx 2 hours a day playing mobile computer games and listening to their ipods, although I expect most of them will be reading their text books and debating the lessons of the school day.

    Education and popular culture finally embrace arms and kiss. the babies will follow. Our children will always be able to stuff a microwave meal in the zapper when they get home, another blessing of the current age.Plus, longer time away from home will mean that parents can spend more time working in non-local work environments to pay for the games and maybe we could get a few fast food outlets in Lerwick to help us out too…

    I am just wondering how long the notice period will be for the redundancy of parents and home life ?

    The cost of living is high, is the cost of home values dying higher still…

    Education takes place when you wake up and ends when you go to sleep. It is a shame that the ‘education’ committee cannot see beyond it’s own targets, reporting structures and careers.

    I commend those who had the backbone to stand for the values they believe in and am shocked by those representatives for whom a manifesto is just a document to win votes with.

    May the best decision for the future of Shetland be in the hearts of those who vote in the next round.

    Love of money will enevitably see the end of it.

  • Johan Adamson

    • September 17th, 2012 13:10

    Roll on the full council meeting on Thursday. A few thoughts:

    Can we have some policy or agreement and information on just how long a pupil of 12 should spend on a bus? I think 65 mins traveling is too long. And Aberdeenshire bairns are not all travelling for this long I am sure – these must be just the outliers.

    I remember it being quite hard to go into S1 at Aith at 12 – the transition from primary to secondary being hard enough – but that hard bit was over before we went to S3 in Lerwick, and then you were a tad older too at 14 – but then I loved the hostel. I would have hated traveling by bus as I am still a bit bus sick and have never been able to read on one.

    Ofcourse the next stage of this is when the buses to Aith are empty of secondary pupils, then they will have to get more primary bairns in there from further west to fill them. And there arent enough buses and drivers to go around, and the bus shelter and the buses at Bixter are already full. There is only a bus shelter and a toilet going to Lerwick as the new hub has neither, for the way back west.

    And I would like to know how they apportioned the cost of the secondary and primary at Aith to calculate the savings. Does Scalloway primary now cost more because the secondary is no longer there to allocate costs to? If they saved so much shutting Scalloway, how come they need to save any more?

    How come our teachers are being gagged? The closure threatened schools teachers are not allowed to speak and the others are being blackmailed by saying that they will lose £1000 per pupil if they dont shut the junior highs. That must be untrue since you have to educate the bairns somehow, but if there are £1000 of savings then we should be making them. The teachers should be getting a chance to speak as they are the ones in charge of educating our bairns and they went to college to best know how to do this. I dont think the teachers we had would have been putting up with this.

    If they ran their own budgets they could choose the services they took from the SIC and what they had to pay for them, not have these costs put apon them.

    Please other communities, continue to support Aith

  • Hazel Spence

    • September 18th, 2012 10:56

    I totally agree schools should have control of their own budgets because the same savings can’t be universal, as every school is different and could save money in different areas. Head Teachers should be also teaching like they used to do. The admin work should not be so much that it hinders them from educatiing children because you are then affectively hiring a very expensive secretary. Their wage is enough that it should include pupil contact time.

    Why is it all the outlying Schools being targeted and notschools in the mainland for example Mossbank, Cunningsburgh and Tingwall on the hit list. Where transport costs would be much less and not include children enduring 2 ferry journeys a day? I do not believe in picking on other schools to save our own but something needs to be done so we do not lose our children 40 hours a week.

    Lots of questions need to be asked and this ‘gagging’ council employee’s should be illegal as it is ultimately them who has the greatest knowledge.

  • Marina Thomason

    • September 18th, 2012 16:41

    The savings the Schools Service are being asked to make are too great, 3 million pounds this year and a further 4 million pounds next year. Even with the best will in the world this is unrealistic and unachievable. As Helen Budge has stated the only way to make these level of cuts is to close schools = get rid of staff. There is an air of desperation around the latest proposals to close junior highs considering that details regarding the new AHS are vague, to say the least. The rush to make savings could result in huge mistakes being made in our education system with devastating consequences for our bairns and our rural communities. School closures are final and permanent. Councillors may argue that we can’t afford our education system, I would argue we can’t afford to get this wrong.

    Can’t believe da Flea is still banging on about the schools in the sooth end, it can’t ever be compared with what is being proposed today. The 5 schools that closed ( Virkie, Quendale, Boddam, Levenwick and Bigton) in 1969 were all primary schools which were in a state of disrepair. The pupils all went to a brand new purpose-build primary school which was no more than 5 miles from any of the pupils homes. Infact, if it was being proposed today the council wouldn’t even have to move to formal consultation as the pupils affected were travelling less than the 5 miles specified by the Scottish Government. How can Councillor Duncan compare that to the 80+ minute bus journey that some pupils under these proposals would have to endure?

    Councillor Wills states the council is “not sending pupils to a prison camp”. When my niece told me about the plastic boxes which lunch is being served up in at the AHS and the plastic cutlery with which to eat it with, that is exactly what sprang to mind. That aside, what is more worrying, is the fact that the canteen and dining areas can’t cope when the bairns that normally go to da street to eat lunch stay at the school ( in bad weather) and they at times have run out of food. I realise that it is a difficult thing to plan for but I do worry that the existing AHS social and dining areas can’t cope with another influx of 100+ pupils.


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