Around 150 people attended the Anderson High School last night to discuss the council’s proposals for the future of secondary education.
More than 40 had come from the West Side by bus after attempts to hold a meeting in their area were turned down by education officials. A host of other West Mainland parents also arrived in their cars.
Aith Junior High School faced the axe as part of the so-called “blueprint” proposal which would have dramatically altered secondary education provision in the isles.
The strength of feeling against the plans have been reflected in the launch of a protest group Aith Action, and a gathering in Aith’s public hall on Sunday which saw 500 people pass through the doors throughout the day to add their support.
Last month SIC councillors stepped back from implementing plans aimed at slashing nearly £3.3 million from its education budget by shutting schools between now and 2017.
Last night’s Anderson High gathering was one of a series of consultation meetings with parents and communities considering five separate options concerning school provision (see previous story). But campaigners say the choices do not go far enough.
Parent Jane Haswell told The Shetland Times the turn-out reflected the strength of feeling in the West Side.
“This is part of that demonstration of that strength of feeling.
“We asked for a meeting on the West Side. We asked for that but we didn’t get that.
“What we want to get is our place round the table to discuss these options and actually have a meaningful discussion about where we feel the options are limiting.
“This shouldn’t be a referendum, this should be an open discussion about the options and we have to look at far more vision.”
The template for last night differed from that of previous consultation meetings.
A presentation on the five options was provided by children’s services director, Helen Budge, before the crowd was divided into groups of 10 to discuss the possibilities.
The format prompted concerns from some who were unable to seek answers direct from senior education officials.
“No questions?” came a voice from the crowd as the evening was brought to a close.
Mrs Budge stressed a need for the council to save £3.268 million over the next three years.
While that was not the only reason the shape of secondary education was being reconsidered, she added: “We can’t ignore it”.
“Over the last five years more than £5 million has been saved in this service area. In the main, all the things that would be nice to have – but not fully necessary – have been taken out,” she said
Retaining the status quo is one of the five options. But Mrs Budge was dismissive of doing nothing, insisting youngsters would face being left unable to access new learning materials. Subject choices would be cut and there would be fewer teaching staff.
“Finally, in order to make all the required savings – while keeping all the secondary schools open – school meals would no longer be available, making Shetland the only local authority in Scotland not to provide school meals,” she said.
“Head teachers involved in developing this option found it extremely difficult to consider savings in this way beyond the first £1.5 million. At a meeting with all head teachers that we had last week, none of them were able to support this approach.
“The status-quo is not an option.”
Despite that she stressed childrens’ services sought the best education for children in the isles.
“We want to concentrate on the best strategic future, rather than dwelling on finances,” she added – a remark that prompted laughter and applause from the crowd.
Speaking after the group discussions had concluded, many felt it had been difficult to find a consensus on the proposals.
Rosemary Macklin has three grandchildren in Sandness – two attending lessons at the Sandness primary school and one who goes to nursery in Walls.
She said many people within her group had different opinions, and struggled to agree on some points.
“Lots of people thought they seemed to go with one or the other hub options. But if option one is not an option, why is it on the agenda?
“And if it’s not about saving money, how come that’s all they’ve been talking about?”
Mrs Haswell was also critical of the options under scrutiny, although she defended officials’ decision to stage group discussions.
“The method that was used was actually sound. It’s a recognised way of doing a consultation exercise, because you get more feedback. But I still say these options were the issue. The consensus was we are coming at it with pre-determined options.
“It’s a huge social experiment. For the first time on the West Side they are talking about boarding 11-year-olds. It’s a social experiment.”
Independent expert, Professor Don Ledingham, is due to consider the options and examine the various implications of each.
Thereafter recommendations will be brought to council’s education and families meeting on 13th November.
Many last night dismissed the process as “too rushed”.
One observer, who did not wish to be named, added: “They should be taking their time on deciding on these ideas.”
For a report from the Brae High School meeting, click here.