Councillors today voted by a narrow 12-10 margin to press ahead with consultations on shutting junior high departments in Aith, Sandwick, Skerries and Whalsay, along with a string of small primary schools.
The outcome, following a three-hour long debate, means the first consultations – on Aith and Skerries secondaries and Olnafirth Primary School – are likely to begin in 2013.
Opponents of the closures repeatedly highlighted that pupils as young as 11 could face unacceptably long journeys to and from school every day. The main alternative put forward was to fully investigate the opportunities presented by digital technology to revolutionise the way education is delivered in remote rural areas.
But education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart insisted looking at things like the “digital classroom” and other ideas would still happen. “We all want the best opportunities for our young people,” she said. “But to prevaricate is not the answer.”
Officials hope the closures will save over £3 million a year as the local authority attempts to address its well-documented, deep-rooted financial difficulties.
Other schools to come under the microscope will be the primaries at Burravoe, North Roe, Sandness and Urafirth. On Friday the education and families committee voted 5-4 to remove the threat of closure from Baltasound’s junior high, and that decision still stands.
An attempt by North Isles member Steven Coutts to have Whalsay removed from the firing line too was defeated 15-7. He did not want young pupils having to face a lengthy daily ferry crossing, and felt it was illogical to single out Whalsay when secondary education will continue to be delivered in both Yell and Unst.
Councillor Billy Fox’s amendment had been to impose a moratorium until the council has set out its budget priorities in more detail, and until the Commission on Rural Education publishes its findings early next year.
In the meantime, Mr Fox wanted the SIC’s in-house expertise used to see if current and future technology could allow junior highs to be kept open while significantly reducing the number of teachers required.
There is a possible get-out clause in what councillors approved today. The plan could be revisited if a “material change in circumstances” occurs, in particular if the council decides to make bigger cuts in other areas to protect spending on schools.
In her opening contribution, Ms Wishart stressed there was “plenty of room for change”. She said there had been many constructive ideas, particularly from the West Side, and sought to assure the 50 or more members of the public watching proceedings that those will be investigated fully.
Ms Wishart is concerned about travel times, but hopes those can be reduced to an acceptable level with some “clever logistical thinking”.
She pointed out that council staff’s wages for this month were coming out of the oil reserves, and if the financial crisis is not tackled now it will make a wave of compulsory redundancies inevitable in a few years’ time.
“What was the right thing to do 40 years ago isn’t necessarily the best thing today,” she said. “The junior high schools have not stopped the drift into town – that’s a continuing phenomenon that’s not just local or national, but global.
“In any case, the idea that you should chain young people to an area and that will make them stay does not necessarily take account of what’s best educationally.
“There are those who argue that there shouldn’t even be a high school in Lerwick, where more than half the population of Shetland lives. No, what we’re aiming for is a centre of excellence for the whole of Shetland in Lerwick, next to the Clickimin Centre which will also provide pupils with some of the best sporting facilities in the country.
“While it may seem that the pieces of the jigsaw are being slotted into the puzzle in the wrong order, I hope to hear [in the] next week whether a new high school is on the cards.”
This morning’s meeting kicked off with a detailed 90-minute Q&A session with children’s services director Helen Budge.
She said every review of education undertaken since 2001 had identified a “need for change” in the number of schools Shetland has. She warned councillors that if none were shut, budgets would have to be cut by £1,000 for every primary and secondary pupil in the islands.
Ms Wishart said that would result in the breadth of education available being reduced, while teachers would “have to spend valuable time trying to chase equipment when they should be in the classroom doing what they do best”.
But Mr Fox said Shetland was not far off having all its secondary schools linked by fibre optic cable. That could provide the opportunity to become a leader nationally in how rural education is provided, and he suggested there may even be the potential for government funding.
“On his recent visit to Shetland, our education minister Mike Russell hinted at such a possibility for innovative solutions,” Mr Fox said. “Shetland’s junior high schools could become centres for excellence with positive gains through spin offs nationally and even globally.”
Another waving the digital flag was Michael Stout, who said the council had invested heavily in Shetland Telecom’s fibre optic network. New technology was “a step-change” ahead of videoconferencing and was well established in countries including Canada, Singapore and Sweden.
“This does mean changing both the way that teachers teach, but also cutting staff numbers because that is where our major cost is at the moment,” he said. “There’s a way of even perhaps making money out of this – a teacher in Baltasound could sit and teach to Asia.”
Former school teacher Peter Campbell, who also wants to tap into advances in digital technology, said backing the plan was tantamount to supporting “the destruction of rural communities”. Referencing a Dolly Parton song, he said “Shetland’s mamas and papas are socking it to us as SIC members”.
Through emails and phone calls Mr Campbell has detected “bewilderment” among many of the electorate, who could not comprehend why well-functioning, popular schools boasting high academic achievements were under threat.
Questioned about the use of digital communication, Mrs Budge said it was hoped that IT could be used to enhance the school curriculum in the future.
But she said the nationwide Commission on School Reform had noted that the use of technology was “scarcely developed” and would have to be explored if Scotland is to keep pace with other countries.
“I don’t think it should replace teachers, and I don’t think it would be best practice to have it replacing teachers,” she said.
North Isles member Robert Henderson asked fellow members whether they wanted to be “known as the council which oversaw the clearances of rural areas of Shetland”. He asked why Lerwick pupils couldn’t be bussed to outlying areas.
“There’s good school infrastructure out there, which can be used without spending much money on it,” he suggested. “Do we need a new AHS? Possibly not.”
Mr Campbell did take exception to Mr Henderson’s idea that pupils from Lerwick should be taught outside of the town. He found that “totally unacceptable” and was sure it would be a “logistical nightmare”.
Before the meeting, SIC political leader Gary Robinson received a petition gathered by Aith parents, who had collected over 1,000 signatures in only 48 hours.
Presenting the petition, Leanne Johnson of Skeld told councillors that folk on the West Side had “made it very plain that the proposal to demolish our education system is unacceptable”.
Mr Robinson has taken considerable flak in recent weeks, and hit out at detractors who he said had accused him of wanting to close schools “with a vigour normally associated with Da Flea” and harbouring a desire to “bulldoze” Aith Junior High to the ground.
He had taken a “principled stand in recognising that the status quo isn’t a tenable position”, but has not taken any side on the specific closures being looked at.
“It is unwise of anyone in my position to be taking sides at the start of a process,” Mr Robinson said. “I’ve been careful not to nail my colours to any mast.”
Councillor Allison Duncan took time out from his holiday in Vancouver in the small hours of the morning to deliver, via telephone link, his trademark story of how closures had benefited the South Mainland 40 years ago. He and Frank Robertson were able to debate and vote remotely, meaning all 22 councillors had an input.
North Mainland member Drew Ratter said he would demand a closer look at technology as part of the proposals. But negotiations on moving towards digital classrooms would be “neither easy nor short” and were not a solution to the council’s immediate troubles.
“We’re pretty limited in choices here,” Mr Ratter said, adding that while the consultation process was not perfect it was “quite robust” and “certainly will not be deaf to ideas and additional proposals for change as it goes on”.
He warned that if the plan was derailed and cuts were not made, the SIC would end up going down in history as the “Viv Nicholson of local authorities” – a reference to the 1960s Pools winner who vowed to “spend, spend, spend”.
In a roll call vote, the dozen councillors who voted to press ahead with closure consultations were: convener Malcolm Bell, Alastair Cooper, Allison Duncan, Drew Ratter, Gary Robinson, David Sandison, Cecil Smith, George Smith, Amanda Westlake, Jonathan Wills, Allan Wishart and Vaila Wishart.
The 10 who backed the call for a moratorium were: Mark Burgess, Peter Campbell, Gary Cleaver, Steven Coutts, Billy Fox, Robert Henderson, Andrea Manson, Frank Robertson, Theo Smith and Michael Stout.
Speaking afterwards, Aith Parent Council chairman Jeremy Sansom said he was disappointed but encouraged that so many councillors saw the “limitations” of the proposals.
He said parents had “little confidence” that the consultation would be fair and comprehensive.
“I believe the moratorium was absolutely the right way forward,” Mr Sansom said. “Whatever they say about the consultation process, sorry, no – this thing will steamroller ahead now with one aim in mind.
“There’s a real challenge laid on the table today to do things differently and actually to become leaders in a whole new way of delivering education in rural areas.”
A separate appeal to save the Whalsay secondary has gathered 177 signatures, while Skerries parents have also begun an online petition.