SIC councillors have paused plans to radically overhaul secondary education until November to allow alternatives to shutting schools to be more fully investigated.
The delay will allow more time for informal consultation on a plethora of issues raised by parent groups, pupils, teachers and trade unions.
They were responding to the local authority’s publication earlier this summer of the “next steps” report on its controversial blueprint for education proposals, which could result in numerous closures.
Education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart said it was a “sensible pause” to allow different models of secondary education to be considered. More research will also be done on the possibility of expanding the use of IT – an idea parent councils are keen to see explored.
It means the planned formal closure consultations for Aith and Sandwick secondaries will be pushed back by at least two months. It will also hold up implementation of the council’s new plan to turn Unst, Whalsay and Yell junior highs into three-year, rather than four-year, secondaries.
The remainder of this month will be given over to information-gathering. In the first week of October different options will be finalised, followed by informal consultation with affected parties – along with two public meetings, possibly in Lerwick and Brae – in the week immediately before the October holidays.
A report taking all the various consultations into consideration will be completed by the end of October and presented to members of the education and families committee on 13th November.
Ms Wishart’s motion to sanction the two-month delay was unanimously backed by the committee on Wednesday morning. Later in the day, it was nodded through by the full council.
Sandwick Parent Council chairwoman Emilie Gray gave a cautious welcome, saying she had “mixed feelings” about the decision to commission more research.
“This is clearly a positive decision as we have been calling for in-depth research and real options appraisal for months now,” Ms Gray told this newspaper. “The breadth of alternatives to be presented to councillors is also heartening.
“However, I have concerns about the timescale for completion of this work – if information is researched and delivered in haste, then the quality and depth of information is unlikely to be satisfactory. As we’ve said before, the impact of these decisions will be felt throughout Shetland for tens of years – councillors must be appropriately informed before arriving at any conclusions.”
Head of schools Helen Budge said one option to be explored was a “telepresence-driven model”: essentially seeing a teacher transmitting his or her lessons to a number of different schools, with classroom assistants present at each school to keep order.
There is considerable unease among teachers, parents and pupils about how a new S1-S3 junior high model will dovetail with the new nationwide Curriculum for Excellence.
Education officials, with the help of outside consultants due to the short timescale, will provide more information about the respective pros and cons of S1-S3, S1-S4 and S1-S6 schools.
One specific area will look at whether pupils intending to leave school at the end of fourth year could be accommodated within an S1-S3 school in the north isles, rather than having to switch to the AHS for a single year.
Ongoing consultations on shutting Skerries’ small secondary department and Olnafirth Primary School are unaffected, as are plans to shut several other small rural primaries.
Mrs Budge said an educationalist and an IT expert might be needed, but she hadn’t got as far as pinning down the cost. But the sum would come from “within existing resources and within our budget” for 2013/14.
The local authority is aiming to shave nearly £3.3 million from its education budget by shutting schools between now and 2017. Although the figures may change, the current plan is to save £833,000 in 2014/15, £719,000 in 2015/16 and around £1.7 million in 2016/17.
Last week it emerged that alterations to the education blueprint will leave the department with a £1 million shortfall – which raises the potential of further closures beyond 2017.
Meanwhile, a consultation on shutting Bressay’s primary school, where the pupil roll has collapsed from 40 to just four in the past decade, will begin at the end of September.
Members expressed a desire to ensure the school was maintained so that it could be reopened at a future date if demand for places recovers.
* Read more in Friday’s Shetland Times.