South Mainland parents warn of potential damage if Sandwick closure goes ahead

Parents in the South Mainland are concerned that the proposed closure of Sandwick Junior High School may already be a “done deal” nearly three years before consultation on the cut is carried out.

The mood among over 40 people who attended a meeting of the school’s parent council yesterday evening was a mixture of confusion, anger and despondency regarding the fate of their 159-pupil secondary department.

Sandwick, along with Aith, Whalsay and Skerries secondaries, is among nine schools earmarked for possible closure as part of the council’s new drive to cut £3.5 million a year from the cost of running its schools estate.

The parents were attending this latest meeting about the threat to confront head of children’s services Helen Budge and the only councillor present, George Smith, who is vice-chairman of the education and families committee.

Consultation on shutting Sandwick and sending secondary pupils to the Anderson High School in Lerwick is timetabled for 2015. According to the latest council figures it is much cheaper to do so: it costs £10,718 a year to educate a pupil at Sandwick compared with £6,654 at the Anderson High.

Mrs Budge said it was “a shame” if people thought it was a “done deal” because there was a long way to go and a lot that could happen before any decision is made.

The parent council may yet ask for the Sandwick consultation to be brought forward a year instead of having to wait so long. Parent council chairwoman Emilie Gray warned about the negative effects of three years of uncertainty. There is concern that the problem of attracting good teachers will get worse due to the career uncertainty and that the school and community will generally suffer from the jolt to its stability.

Mrs Budge said a request to be fast-tracked could be considered and there was a space in the 2014 timetable for consultation because Baltasound Junior High was removed from the list of under-threat schools.

Councillor Smith told people that his colleagues had decisions to make about spending priorities in the coming months which would provide a clearer picture as to whether £3.5 million would really need to be cut from the schools estate. He suggested that many of the councillors don’t really want to see that size of cut. But he said there was no point pretending that the £30 million cuts across the council could be avoided over the next two years.

Already £5 million is being squeezed from the education system in the shape of bigger primary classes, fewer teachers and reductions in other school operating costs.

Steven Jamieson from Sandwick was adamant that the whole consultation process was now impaired because the council is to get around £23 million from the Scottish government for the new AHS. Once the new school is built it will have to be filled with pupils.

He said: “It’s too easy now that you’ve got the money from the government to say: ‘Shut them, bang, bang, bang, and bus everybody to Lerwick!”

But Mrs Budge made it clear the new school was a “like-for-like” replacement which had been planned for many years, which had no bearing on the closures consultations.

If a school was to be closed the council had to be able to show the educational benefits, she said, not just to the pupils from that school but to those at the receiving school and to bairns generally across Shetland.

She also revealed the answer to a question many have been asking about why the council failed to apply to the government for funds to build the AHS during the previous two rounds of Schools for the Future awards. It was because they had been for primary schools, not high schools.

Parents attending the meeting eventually drew attention to the fact that most of what they were hearing was about saving money whereas they were repeatedly assured that schools would only be shut if clear educational benefits could be shown.

Hansen Black from Dunrossness said it was unfortunate that there could not now be a proper debate on the future of the junior high school system because the threat of closure was already hanging over them. “The time for having proper debate about what’s best for wir bairns is long gone,” he said.

One of the biggest concerns expressed was what would happen to children as young as 11 who either did not want to go to a large school in Lerwick or found they could not handle it when they transferred and just wanted to go home. Up to now those pupils transferred at an older age and if they wanted to they could return to their “excellent” local junior high.

That would no longer be an option, which represented a drastic reduction in educational choice.

Mrs Budge said teachers did not think the junior highs were able to offer the breadth of qualifications that the high school could so they were not viewed as the best option.

Pressed to comment on alternatives, Mrs Budge said attending the AHS was not as daunting these days for rural pupils because few of them had to stay in the hostel. They get to go home every night.

She agreed it was possible for parents to provide home schooling and they had the right to put their children to another school, although for those at the Ness that prospect could be sending them all the way to potentially the only remaining alternative secondary school – in Brae!

Of even more concern to parents was the sentencing of so many children to daily bus journeys of potentially two hours or more just to get to and from Lerwick. Mrs Budge said NHS Shetland was carrying out a study of the health implications of such long periods of sitting in buses, which will include the associated effects of losing out on sport and leisure opportunities and positive routines such as walking to and from school.

Raymond Mainland from Dunrossness warned of the centralising effect of closing Sandwick and the damage it would cause to the community and its sports and social groups. If families started to move as well the town would not be able to cope. He wanted the £3.5 million saving to be found somewhere else in the council budget, not from shutting rural schools.

One woman said her family was already experiencing problems due to the length of time her children had to spend on buses to and from Lerwick, particularly a son with special needs who has to leave 20 minutes before his brother to go to the same school and only gets home an hour later, at 5pm. That meant he was already travelling more than the maximum 65 minutes a day each way.

Mrs Budge apologised for that unsatisfactory arrangement, which is being looked at. She also pledged to have a full review of the school transport system.

Linda Tait warned of the potentially severe impact on quality of life and asked how parents were supposed to take seriously the campaigns on obesity and active schools when sticking children on buses flew in the face of all that. “Their energy levels, their ability to achieve, is going to be affected by that,” she said.

Alex Ward said when he lived down south a few years ago the council had closed schools and forced children onto buses. Then after two years they began charging parents for the fares, costing thousands of pounds a year each. When he was assured that the SIC had no such plans he replied: “That’s what our council said too.”

There appeared to be only one dissenting voice at the meeting – that of Robert Bell from Sandwick – who provoked an angry response from Mr Jamieson and others when he said he was “100 per cent convinced” that a bigger, better Anderson High School was the way forward. Other parents he had spoken to were of the same view, he said, and more were coming round.

He believed there could be “extremely good benefits” from closing Sandwick and it should not be assumed that everybody supported the status quo.

Some people are annoyed that Shetland’s army of teachers are not free to air their opinions on closures publicly. Mrs Tait said people believed the council had slapped on a “gagging order”. At the last meeting about Sandwick School a lot of teachers had attended but none opened their mouths, she said, yet they had a lot to contribute to the debate.

Mrs Budge said that while teachers were free to comment as parents or members of the public – as they had done at meetings elsewhere – they were not at liberty to use information they have through their jobs.

“That’s mad. That’s absolutely nuts,” Mrs Tait responded.

She is one of the parents who rejects the idea of having to send her bairns to such a large school so far away when at Sandwick she said they were already outperforming the Lerwick school.

Following the two-hour meeting the parent council is to meet again soon to decide its position on the closure proposal and issue a public statement.


Add Your Comment
  • Johan Adamson

    • October 6th, 2012 9:54

    Given the choice of busing and hostel at 14, I would have picked the hostel as it was great, like boarding school you didnt pay for and I was old enough to cope with it. I wouldnt have coped with hostel or busing at 12. I used to feel sorry for the Papa Stour and Fair Isle bairns who came to the hostel at 12 and didnt get home all term, whereas we left them on a friday. They were really lonely. Would not have discovered I liked school if I had been bussed as I would have got home after 5 only to be busy helping with tea or dishes and watched TV.

    Why dont they build a junior high for Lerwick and then put all 5th and 6th years to the college? Take in Bells Brae – they could do with a new building.

    The difference in the cost of AHS and Sandwick is cheifly the busing. Brae High actually costs the most. The bigger the school the bigger the saving by the SIC figures.

  • Michael Bilton

    • October 9th, 2012 2:09

    As a frequent visitor to Shetland I would advise parents to fight this proposal for all their worth, and they need to be prepared to use the law and the Human Rights Act which entitles them to a family life, which could be said to be denied to kids who are compelled to be away from home, rather than as a matter of free choice. I would also recommend they consider judicial reviews of any decisions made – and they ought to be able to get legal aid to do this. However….they must prepare for the long legal battle which means they must gather evidence/documentation of the way in which Shetland Council goes about making this decision. Parents would need to show there had been some breach of the rules, or process, and that the council had acted illegally, not carrying out the process in a legal manner, in accordance with the rules. I would challenge whether any psychological studies had been carried out on kids sent away to school compulsorily. Are there instances of child abuse of children compulsorily sent away for boarding elsewhere in Scotland. Have any reports been prepared about kids in other areas of Scotland? Are there experts, psychologists for example, who might be able to advise parents in the areas where parents are deeply concerned.

    What parents cannot do is simply sit by and let Shetland Council roll over them. The bureaucrats have almost certainly decided this is a done deal and are going through the motions of consultation. Parents have rights but they must be prepared to fight for them.

  • Ali Inkster

    • October 9th, 2012 16:20

    As a frequent visitor but not a resident what is it do you think that gives you the right to advocate the spending of more money and causing further division in these isles, Michael.
    As for psychological studies, get real just how many country folk of my age and older who were residents in the hostel or travelled by bus are suffering post traumatic stress disorder from their experience. There is enough shit being spouted already up here without some bloody tourist sticking there tuppence worth in.
    For those that are interested in my opinion though I think our social work budget and the legion of managers in the SIC (both in numbers employed and wages payed) should be the first place we make cuts.
    If their needs to be a cut in education then some of the pointless courses at UHI Shetland campus that don’t lead to viable employment should be done away with. just ask our Apprentice of the year (congratulations by the way) what I mean.
    Lets get some Engineering courses there and get our young folk into well paid employment instead of arts, crafts, literature, social studies, scotish culture etc.
    The job I am working on now has 8 lads from Lewis working here and on their way to earning 4-5+ times the national average wage, money which they will take back to there community and spend boosting their local economy by several £million between them over the course of their careers.
    Here we are sitting in the middle of all this oil and yet there are very few men and women taking advantage of this bounty because our council and education dept has never had the foresight to encourage them to do so.

  • Marina Thomason

    • October 10th, 2012 16:22

    It is reported here that Helen Budge said the reason they had not applied sooner to the Government for funding for the new AHS was because it was at that time for primaries not secondaries.

    Please google SPICe Briefing, School Buildings, Frequently Asked Questions.

    The Scotland’s Schools for the Future programme was announced by the Scottish Government in June 2009 with schools being named for funding in September 2009. These schools included 13 secondary schools.

    Previous to this programme of funding councils were invited to bid for funding in either December 2001 or September 2002 under the PPP (Public Private Partnerships) scheme. There were four announcements of successful bids, the last one was Eilean Siar (Western Isles) in June 2004. This was for a new high school (Nicolson Institute) just recently completed and opened, 3 new primary schools and one refurbishment. Orkney were also successful in eventually securing funding under the same scheme for a new Kirkwall Grammer school, Stromness Primary and Papdale Halls of Residence.

    The SIC did apply and were successful in getting funding for refurbs on primary schools under the Schools for the Future but as far as I’m aware there was nothing to stop them bidding for funding for a new AHS at the same time.

  • Brian Smith

    • October 11th, 2012 16:32

    Ali Inkster says that he is not suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. He sounds as if he is.

  • Professor David Gray

    • October 11th, 2012 17:52

    In response to the comments made by Ali Inkster regarding “pointless” courses at Shetland College UHi I feel that some facts might be useful here….

    Firstly the courses run and delivered by Shetland College are not funded by the local Council but by The Scottish Funding Council and so have no direct implications for local budget setting.

    Secondly Shetland has one of the lowest unemployment levels in the entire United Kingdom and Shetland College is proud of its exceptionally high level of graduates who go into full time employment upon completion of their course with us as highlighted by HMIe during our most recent inspection.

    Thirdly, the “pointless” area of art and crafts is actually the third highest economic driver for the Shetland economy and is one of our few areas of economic growth in the current financial recession. In fact, it is one of our largest exports when you include the unique Shetland folk music which enjoys a global reputation.

    Shetland College does offer Engineering programmes through its partnership with The NAFC Marine Centre and our “Skills for work programme” with local schools in the area of engineering is incredibly popular….add to that our 30+ Modern Apprentice Engineers through Train Shetland and our provision is very strong indeed with employers recruiting Shetlanders to work on the mainland.

    Shetland College carried out a fundamental review of its curriculum at the start of this year which included all major stakeholders to ensure that our programmes met the key priorities for the Shetland Community moving forward and we are confident that we are delivering what is best for our learners and for Shetland.

    Yes there will always be those that do not necessarily agree with what we offer, and that is understandable but I would suggest that there are far more constructive ways to approach a dialogue on this subject than to suggest some of our courses as pointless.

  • Johan Adamson

    • October 12th, 2012 9:19

    The saddest thing about this Marina is that we are not surprised Helen got this wrong. We no longer expect or believe that those in charge of Education know whats right any more (even with a religious leader amongst them). There is such a distinct lack of a cohesive or any sort of a plan for education neither the buildings not the operation – just money, politics or a harking back to having one main high school.

    We should maybe take comfort that the plan to remove all junior high schools is already dead in the water since the nort isles have been removed from this, so it is watered down to ‘ .. all JHs except ….’ I think we all recognise the need to save money but there just has got to be a better plan.

  • ian tinkler

    • October 12th, 2012 11:51

    Please correct me if I am wrong, I am sure many would love to, but does Shetland not lack any centre of excellence in the teaching of the Sciences. A young person, on leaving high school, whom with the most “useful” Arts qualifications, who may wish to contribute to human knowledge and progress by further training themselves for a career in the sciences, has nothing. Such useful and vital careers such as medicine, ecology, aviation, theoretical physics, biological sciences, computing and electronics are just not available without basic science qualifications. Once beyond high school the adult colleges on Shetland offer next to nothing. Try finding a physics, chemistry, and biology or mathematics course taught on Shetland for adults. Maybe that’s why most of our highly gifted youngsters go south. I would apprieciate a view from David Gray on this..

  • Ian Tinkler

    • October 12th, 2012 14:31

    excuse the double negative. not lack1111

  • Sandy McDonald

    • October 13th, 2012 8:13

    Sometimes double negatives only apply in mathematics, it’s perfectly ok to use them for oratorical emphasis or rhythm.

  • Ali Inkster

    • October 14th, 2012 18:29

    considering that is the longest letter you have written on anything other than getting everybody out on strike, I think you have proved my point on worthless degrees Brian

  • Gemma Passmore

    • October 15th, 2012 22:49

    I’m sorry Michael Bilton, but I have never heard such nonsense about children being sent away to boarding school and to be honest find that sort of attitude deeply offensive!! I had no choice in the matter and neither did my parents really! They wanted the best for me with my dad constantly on overseas tours or moving round the UK every year and was “sent away” to boarding school, hundreds of miles from my parents for weeks on end. I have never been abused, I don’t have any kind of psychological dysfunction or post traumatic stress. Instead I have a much closer relationship with my parents at my age than many of my friends do, I am extremely independent which has helped me hugely in my career by being able to move away from my support network to pursue the best, and it provided me with a better education.


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