Sandwick parents call for rethink on school closures
Parents of pupils at the Sandwick secondary department have urged the council to think twice before closing schools.
Around 50 people attended a public meeting last night to voice fears over the future of education should councillors press ahead with proposals to save over £3 million by closing down junior highs and five primaries.
The SIC estimates that shutting Sandwick alone could save £907,790.
But parents praised the junior high model of education in Shetland. Some people pointed to better exam results achieved at Sandwick and at Aith – which is also faced with the threat of closure – than in Lerwick.
There were warnings journey times to and from the Anderson High would take too long if Sandwick shut down. Many journeys already take more longer than the 65 minutes the SIC has set as a maximum for trips to and from secondary schools.
One concerned parent said journey times would be reduced if pupils were instead bussed from the Anderson High to various junior highs in the country, and called for the council to examine the proposal.
“It’s not very far to take the Anderson bairns to Scalloway, to Sandwick, to Brae. Can Sandwick absorb 200 bairns from the town? Can the West Side absorb 200 bairns from the town, or Brae or a re-opened Scalloway?”
South Mainland councillor George Smith said no costings had been made.
“There are two options – one is the option that is costed and is on the table at the moment, to close five junior highs along with five primaries to save around three and a half million. The other way would be to not have the Anderson and bus everybody out. It can be done – whether it will be done is another matter because of political will, and it hasn’t been costed. I think it is one of the options that could be costed.”
Some were also concerned their school would find itself in “limbo” as parents, increasingly alarmed by the prospect of Sandwick possibly closing, choose to send their children to an increasingly packed Anderson High instead.
But first came a warning from head of finance James Gray. The council’s reserves, he said, had dipped from £227.7 million to £193.2 million in the space of 12 months from April last year. This year’s draw is estimated to be around £36 million.
Doing nothing, he warned, would result in the reserves dwindling away by 2016/17. “There is no choice about it,” he said.
One parent dismissed the meeting as “a train-wreck of finances”. He called for more evidence of a plan for education being put forward.
“In what sense is this a Blueprint refresh?” he demanded.
There was also concern that no-one from the education department had been invited to attend. Parent council chairman James Lucock said the get-together had been arranged for councillors to hear feedback from parents before this week’s Full Council meeting takes place on Thursday.
South Mainland member Billy Fox was at the meeting along with Mr Smith, although fellow south end councillor Allison Duncan did not attend but sent his apologies.
Concerns were highlighted from one former pupil at the Scalloway Junior High, who said youngsters who had been forced to move to Lerwick after the closure of Scalloway’s secondary ended up with less teacher support.
Renegotiating the terms of the oil deal which provides cash thanks to Sullom Voe was put forward as one possibility. That was something Mr Fox, who is also a member of the Sullom Voe Association, said was already being examined.
“There’s a definite feeling that we need to go back to them and say Sullom Voe needs us and we need Sullom Voe. If they want us to provide the harbour service, for example, then they need to look at getting us a better deal.”
A stronger emphasis was also called for more use of video-link technology and social media for developing a sustainable education service in rural areas – many sought a full costing exercise to be carried out into the use of such technology.
Mother Linda Tait called for a breakdown of costs on “central services” along with an examination of administration support to see if it could be done more cost-effectively.
“It seems to me you get lots of letters from people to do with schooling and every letter is signed by different admin staff. While I think it’s hard to speak about redundancy, when you are speaking about three and a half million pounds you’re speaking about future generations. Once the schools are closed, re-opening them is never going to happen.”
She called on views from the public to be gathered on what should be included within tight budgets.
Mr Smith urged parent council members to put forward alternative ideas for education in Sandwick or how the savings could be made from elsewhere.
“It’s fairly clear all the imaginative thinking isn’t going to come from the school service alone.
“It’s about as many brains as possible to come with thoughts and ideas to try and achieve a two-pronged attack – one to seek an alternative way of providing education and the other way is to find an alternative place for the savings to come from.
“As a parent council, if you had thoughts in terms of how Sandwick might be able to be used in a different way to contribute education then you work that up a peerie bit, put forward a plan that could be made up into something that is viable.”
During the meeting Mr Fox also admitted he had no confidence in the consultation process.
“In past the consultation process has not taken on board what people have said.
“When it goes on paper it tends to be a roadmap. If I felt the consultation process was going to be carried out in a truly inclusive form, with really good ideas taken onboard, I wouldn’t have a problem with the consultation process, but I don’t have that confidence.”