The SIC estimates it would save around £170,000 a year by shutting Voe’s small primary school and Skerries’ three-pupil secondary department.
Consultations on closing the two schools began today and will conclude, following four public meetings, on Friday 28th June.
Councillors are unlikely to be asked to take a final decision until November, after which the Scottish Government would have a six-week window to “call in” and review any closure decisions.
If Olnafirth Primary School, with 13 pupils, and Skerries’ secondary do ultimately shut, pupils will be transferred to Brae and the Anderson High School respectively next summer.
Schools service officials at Hayfield predict that closing Olnafirth would save £91,309 a year. Ending the provision of secondary education in Skerries would yield an estiamted £76,336 a year.
In Olnafirth’s case the savings would come after extra transport costs of around £33,000 are deducted. The Skerries savings figure factors in a combined £4,100 to cover the cost of travel and housing pupils in Lerwick’s hostel during the school week.
These are the first schools to come under the microscope since the nationwide Commission on Rural Education published its findings on how school closure legislation is working. The publication of its report prompted education minister Mike Russell to lift a moratorium on closures, which he had put in place nearly two years ago.
The SIC’s “refreshed” blueprint for education is the latest in a long line of attempts to shut rural schools. It forms part of efforts to shed over £3 million from its £41 million education budget and tackle the local authority’s deep-rooted spending crisis.
Consultations on shutting junior highs in Aith and Sandwick will follow in the autumn. A further four primaries, along with Whalsay’s junior high, are mooted for closure further down the line.
The school roll at Olnafirth has dropped lately and is only operating at 10 per cent of its 125-pupil capacity. It was initially targeted for closure in 2010 but was left in limbo during the moratorium.
Hayfield officials say the decline is “due in part to placing requests by parents”. Parents may counter that more pupils are being sent five miles up the road to Brae due to uncertainty over whether the school has a future.
In this financial year, the per pupil cost at Olnafirth is £13,413 – compared to £5,726 at Brae’s primary department.
Officials say closure “would not result in unacceptable travel time for pupils”. They also suggest children would benefit from a larger peer group and a “more viable cohort of pupils” for group activities.
The Skerries community is no stranger to consultations. It has faced down numerous attempts at taking away its secondary department, earning three reprieves in the past decade. The most recent came in December 2010 when councillors voted 12-10 to keep Scotland’s smallest secondary open.
On that occasion an impassioned plea from ex-SIC leader and North Isles member Josie Simpson persuaded enough colleagues that the island’s fragile economy would struggle to cope.
But the updated proposal paper insists there would be “no detrimental effect” on the community’s sustainability. It points to a 2008 study saying the pupil roll has shown an “almost continuous decline” since the 1970s despite the secondary department’s presence.
If there was a negative effect, officials argue, it would be offset by pupils’ opportunity to access “greater educational provision and choice” and a larger peer group.
While Skerries offers “a quality education” to pupils, officials point out that it is expensive. In 2013/14 the per pupil cost was £36,398, compared to £6,247 at the AHS. The Shetland-wide average in 2011/12 was £9,517.
There will be two public consultation meetings for each proposal: in Olnafirth’s case, one in Voe Public Hall from 7-9pm on Wednesday 29th May, followed by one at Brae High School from 7-9pm the following night.
The AHS will host a meeting on Skerries from 7-9pm on Tuesday 28th May, followed by a session in Skerries Hall from 12 noon-2pm on Friday 7th June.
Education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart said: “We would encourage everyone to participate in [the] statutory consultation process, attend the meetings and send in their views, particularly those affected by these proposals.”
Full proposal papers for each of the consultations are available online at www.shetland.gov.uk/education/blueprint_for_education.asp. Hard copies are available at the affected schools, at Shetland Library or from Hayfield House.
More in Friday’s Shetland Times.