“In no circumstances is this Skerries community giving up the fight”. The defiant words of Ann Anderson summed up the mood among the 25 residents who attended the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of consultations on whether to close Skerries’ small secondary school.
The three-pupil department was spared the axe as recently as December 2010. The faces of some of the councillors have changed, but the arguments on either side have not – and the community’s exasperation at retreading the same old ground yet again was plain to see.
Around a third of the population turned out for a two-hour meeting at Skerries Public Hall on Friday lunchtime to tell councillors and officials how they felt.
One local woman, Melanie Gorman, asked if the council could not just refer to earlier consultations: “Does everyone have to re-say everything again for the millionth time? Those comments are still valid – there’s nothing changed.”
Financial savings are estimated to be £76,336 once extra transport and hostel accommodation costs are factored in. It forms part of wider efforts to shut several primaries and junior highs to save over £3 million a year from the SIC education budget.
The SIC’s educational case for shutting the three-pupil department centres on greater opportunities to interact with people of the same age, enjoy better access to specialist teachers and a wider choice of subjects. Pupils would be transferred to the Anderson High School in Lerwick next year.
Islanders counter that children in Skerries enjoy a superior experience growing up, both in and out of school. Education officials argue that pupils miss out on after-school clubs and activities, but residents point out the benefits of interacting with people of all ages, and learning traditional skills.
“They learn everything from beginning to end,” said mother Denise Anderson. “crofting, fishing, plumbing – the skills they’re learning here are second-to-none.”
Ms Gorman was taught on the Shetland mainland, but found moving to Skerries “an eye-widening experience”.
“You went off in a boat and did things, mended nets, things I never had the option [to do]. I think for Shetland’s heritage, things like that are important – going back to the roots, things people learned from their folk and their grand-folk. By going to the hostel they’re going to lose that.”
Denise Anderson asked whether pupils would still be able to enjoy the same diet – lobster and crab included – that they were accustomed to. Schools official Shona Thompson said she could not guarantee lobster would be on offer in the hostel dining room.
Parents remain unhappy at the prospect of children aged 11 and up spending all but 44 hours a week away from home during term time. Arrangements for travelling to and from Lerwick are a major cause of concern too: islanders blanch at the idea of their bairns travelling unsupervised on a 90-minute ferry journey across open seas.
North Isles councillor Gary Cleaver, one of six elected members present, said it was wrong for officials to draw parallels with travelling by bus, as many other isles pupils do.
“We need to get away from this rather glib assertion that a ferry is like a bus,” Mr Cleaver said. “There are whole periods of time when no member of the ferry crew is anywhere near the [passenger] saloon. I would really need to seek very, very strong assurances as to how the children can be guaranteed to be in a safe place at all times on their journeys.”
Two-and-a-half years ago, a study highlighting the importance of Skerries’ seafood industry to the wider Shetland economy was widely believed to have swayed some councillors’ minds. The study is to be updated this time around.
While the island’s population has been dropping, Ryan Arthur suggested that could be down to the fact that “in the last three decades we’ve hardly ever been without the threat of closure”.
When he moved to the island a few years ago there was one family with young children. Now there are three, and by the end of the summer it will be four. Mr Arthur said it was “the best time Skerries has had in its recent history” in that sense.
He had nothing against the Lerwick hostel, but said many found it difficult to adjust to even at the age of 16. “There’s just no way I’d send… a very homesick 11-year-old [there], it’s just not going to happen.”
Mr Arthur said he was sure the Scottish Government would want to see evidence that alternatives to closure had been fully investigated. Although IT was “not ideal in all circumstances” it would be “hugely less unacceptable than the alternative”.
The other main council service islanders benefit from, its ferry link, is also facing cutbacks. Infrastructure committee chairman Allan Wishart agreed that those changes must not be made in isolation from the impact on education.
Ann Anderson said she had encountered a Lerwick community councillor on a recent night out in the town. He had told her Skerries should give up its fight “so that his bairns could have a better education in Lerwick”.
The community councillor in question said he had spoken to Fair Isle folk who had gone to the AHS aged 11 without any difficulties.
“He could only go on what somebody else said,” Ann Anderson said. “I turned around and said ‘that can’t be dy opinion, because you’ve not lived it’. I don’t think it’s right to say that our bairns should suffer so his bairns get a better education.”
A more detailed consultation report will be drawn up, with input from the community and Education Scotland, before councillors are asked to take a decision in the autumn.
Education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart said afterwards that the council had been keen to hear the community’s views.
“Once again the Skerries people have taken the opportunity to air their views and ask questions,” she said. “We’ll do our best to make sure these questions are answered before the consultation paper is published.”