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.