Councillors advised to close Skerries secondary and Olnafirth primary

Hayfield officials are advising councillors that they should vote to shut Skerries’ secondary department and Olnafirth Primary School.

The widely-expected recom­mend­­ations are contained in a report following public consult­ations on whether to close the two schools. The pivotal vote takes place on 10th October.

In the case of Skerries, which has faced down numerous closure attempts, 60 per cent of written responses opposed closure, 25 per cent were in favour and 16 per cent “did not indicate an opinion”.

Councillors last week agreed to pause other proposals affecting second­aries so more research could be conducted.

That has left parents fighting against closure in Skerries furious with the SIC. Islander Ryan Arthur told this newspaper: “They’ve paused all the other closure proces­ses while they start to consider alter­natives that they dismissed when we proposed it here in Skerries.”

Children's services director Helen Budge.
Children’s services director Helen Budge.

Asked why the consultation had not been halted until November, children’s services director Helen Budge said it was because the statutory consult­ation was “so far through the process”.

“Nobody has come forward with any kind of amendment or motion for that not to happen,” she said, “so our clear instruction from members is to continue…”

One option being investigated is transforming other isles secondaries to S1-S3 – allowing Whalsay to escape outright closure.
Although it won’t be an option open to Skerries parents, Mr Arthur said that – while he would prefer the status quo – “if it’s a choice between sending your bairns away at 11 or 15, then you’d choose 15.”

The consultation report states that those in favour of shutting Sker­ries cited the lack of peer interaction in such a small secondary, the quality of education available and the need to save money.

From his initial read of the 225-page report, Mr Arthur believes a report on the socio-economic impact of closure “strongly backs us up”.

It refers to the prospect of two families with children, and possibly more, leaving the islands. That would have a “severe impact” on the Skerries population and its economy – possibly reducing the viability of its primary school.

Parent Ryan Arthur at a public meeting in Skerries back in June. Photo: Neil Riddell
Parent Ryan Arthur at a public meeting in Skerries back in June. Photo: Neil Riddell

Mr Arthur feels passionately that the education department is con­duct­ing a “continued vendetta against the isle”.

“I can’t see any sensible reason why this is ploughing ahead. We’ve had the fire brigade pulled, they’ve halved the ferry service, the plane almost never comes here anymore. We are to Lerwick what Lerwick is to Scotland – they soon whine about it when Scotland takes something away from them.”

Education officials contend that, while Skerries pupils’ attainment outdoes that at the Anderson High School, “educating such small num­bers of children together is not the best possible educational oppor­tunity”.

Parents have suggested that the council should make savings in other areas such as senior management.

The report counters that £4.2 million has been cut from the schools budget – without shutting schools – since April 2012. It states: “[The children’s services depart­ment] cannot do much more without considering again how many schools it has.”

In the case of Olnafirth’s small primary, half of the 22 written consult­ation responses were opposed to closure. 27 per cent were in favour, with the remainder not expressing a clear view.

Again the SIC acknowledges the “very high quality of education” offered to pupils at Olnafirth. But officials believe Brae’s primary department, a few miles up the road from Voe, is “better placed to meet [pupils’] needs for group learning, working in teams, relating with… and communicating with others”.

Parents argued that “factual errors” meant the local authority was overestimating how much might be saved by shutting the primary. The council has clarified and revised its figures and is now actually estimate more money – £97,239 rather than £91,309 – will be saved each year.

After the consultations were pub­lished, parents and mem­bers of the public have three weeks to respond or lobby councillors before decision day.

More in tomorrow’s Shetland Times.


Add Your Comment
  • Michael Bilton

    • September 22nd, 2013 2:27

    Families on Skerries should fight to save their secondary school and if necessary threaten that they will go to court and seek a judicial review and ask for legal aid to do so. They have several legal arguments in their favour. The European Convention on Human Rights guarantees individuals the right to a family life – compulsorily making children separate from their families – often for long periods if bad weather prevents them coming home at weekends, could be argued a serious breach of ECHR. Making pupils be educated on the mainland, when there is a school available on Skerries can be argued to be unreasonable and disproportionate. The fact is Shetland is made up of islands, some of them distant, some of them with secondary age children whose parents wish them to be educated locally. This has happened for generations and a well administered local authority would budget properly for this. If SIC are going to turn their back on island communities then they should say so and call themselves simply Shetland Council. Vast amounts of money are spent in and around Lerwick on grandiose project – all well and good, but the people of Skerries cannot use those facilities easily. If Skerries is to be populated it comes at a cost – and that cost comes from the public purse. It would be almost impossible for the SIC to successfully argue in court that the saving of money is the most crucial issue on whether the children are educated locally, since the council has for years maintained a secondary school and obviously has the option of making financial savings elsewhere. The truth is, as so many have said, it is simply convenient for SIC to educate all Shetland’s children, in so far as they can, in one place. They get economies of scale per pupil. Someone should point out that schools are not factories, and children do not come off a production line. But there are other factors the families could use in their legal argument against closing Skerries school. It is nigh on certain that children during a bad winter will have difficulty getting back home on a Friday. Families in communities like Skerries are very close and live traditional lives and thus will not be able to plan a life together if they do not know whether the secondary pupils will actually be home at the weekends. Younger primary age siblings growing up in a family will have older siblings removed from the family – suddenly they are virtually an only child, and that could cause emotional or psychological problems and affect their own schooling. Often older children play an important role in the social life of their family, especially if fathers are away fishing or other business. There are many, many, grounds for going to court to prevent SIC from robbing Skerries’ kids of the right to be educated on their home island. Any half-decent accountant could undertake an independent study of how the SIC has administered its budget and find ways that it has wasted or mispent money, or could have made savings in other areas. Removing the Skerries secondary pupils from the island school would be a terrible backwards step. Historically, the small islands have produced very well-educated young people – who have gone out into the world and done well for themselves and are a credit to Shetland. Administrators will always come up with an easy way to solve their need to save money. Well how about councillors giving up their perks, their allowances and expenses, because there was a time when they served their local communities without reward because they were public spirited and wished to make a contribution to public life – not make money from it. It is time somone did an independent audit of the SIC to see how money could be saved, other than wrecking the lives of families in distant islands. We are told many millions of pounds are to be gleaned from green energy projects/wind turbines in Shetland. Is their no local benefit from this project. Is Shetland to be awash with new money like the oil boom – how is it that education of all things is expected to take such an enormous hit. Has no one approached the EU to see if their is a financial programme to help remote islands – because they are critical to Shetland’s culture and the culture of the EU is hugely diverse. Someone on SIC should be pulling out all the stops to prevent this ridiculous measure of closing a remote school. Once a school goes and children have to leave, parents often head for the mainland to keep the family together. Is this what the powers that be secretly want – to depopulate the outlying islands – because they are too expensive to run? Families on Skerries need to find a public spirited advocate to advise them. United they can stop this foolish thing happening.


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