Alterations to the SIC’s programme of school closures will leave its education department with a £1 million shortfall, councillors will be told next week.
If the local authority’s latest blueprint for education proposals are pushed through, secondaries in Sandwick, Aith and Skerries will shut, as will five small primaries. However, the funding gap will inevitably raise fears that further closures might be necessary beyond 2017.
At the start of this council’s term last summer, the local authority had hoped to save nearly £3.3 million by shutting schools. But in September 2012 plans to shut Baltasound’s secondary department were struck out, leaving an estimated £520,000-a-year funding gap.
And, assuming members approve the “next steps” of the controversial blueprint, the further alterations will see the projected savings total slide to £2.25 million.
Councillors will next week debate whether to approve changes which would remove the threat of closure from Whalsay. That community’s secondary, along with those in Mid Yell and Baltasound, would then be the subject of a consultation on becoming S1-S3 high schools. Pupils are currently taught in the three islands until the end of S4.
The report will go before the education and families committee on Wednesday morning, to be followed by a full council meeting later that day.
As previously reported, Hayfield officials had hoped the “next steps” would be agreed upon in early August. But a delay was granted after trade unions objected to such fundamental decisions being taken in the middle of the summer school holidays.
If the proposals are waved through by councillors, it will give staff the green light to proceed with consultations on shutting Sandwick and Aith.
Parents in Sandwick have expressed a desire for the possibility of an S1-S3 secondary in the South Mainland to be examined too. That is expected to be raised by the area’s councillors next week.
Children’s services director Helen Budge’s new report states that, since April 2012, savings of £5 million a year have been found through non-closure savings.
Sources within Hayfield have indicated they believe that budgets for things like books and stationary have already been stripped close to the bone.
“This figure represents a significant reduction in the total spend across all areas,” Mrs Budge writes. “To identify the… shortfall of £1.018 million is challenging.”
There is no guidance, at this stage, as to where such savings might be found without looking at shutting more schools.
SIC political leader Gary Robinson admitted it would prove “increasingly difficult” to find savings in education.
But he believes it would be unfair to ask other departments to pick up the slack. He pointed to national statistics showing the SIC is spending “somewhere in the order of £3,000 per pupil more” than any other Scottish local authority on secondary education.
“It’s becoming more and more difficult to justify the amount we’re spending on secondary education in particular,” Mr Robinson said.
While he “wouldn’t like to speculate at this stage” as to whether schools beyond the present three secondaries and five primaries may have to shut, Mr Robinson admitted: “It’s clear that nothing can really be left off the table.”
He points out that the council’s medium-term financial plan will result in children’s services accounting for a higher proportion of the SIC’s shrunken budget come 2016.
“We need to cut fairly and evenly across the council services,” he said, “and we’ve seen some pretty tough decisions already in terms of economic development, and even in social care.
“I don’t think there’s any magic solution that avoids closing or amalgamating schools – every other local authority in Scotland has had to go down that route.”
But Aith Parent Council chairman Jeremy Sansom said parents throughout rural Shetland were united in their desire for a wider review to develop a clear vision for education into the mid-2020s, rather than just to the end of this council term.
“To me the only way is a willingness of this council to take the bold step of forgoing the savings for however long it takes to get that strategy developed,” Mr Sansom said.
“Children’s services will say the blueprint is their strategy – we’d dispute that it is either strategy or vision – [the “next steps” report] is purely an attempt to dress up the blueprint with some kind of educational benefit.
“We would dispute the amazing emphasis they put on transitions as being the most important factor with regard to Curriculum for Excellence – every indication is that it can be delivered by a variety of systems.
“We need that integrated, comprehensive strategy in place before any drastic closures are made.”