Councillors should focus on providing quality education when they meet next week, and not just on finances.
That is the warning of local EIS secretary Steve Davidson following a report which recommends that the SIC should push ahead with statutory consultation on closing Aith and Sandwick Junior High Schools.
The council could save £2.3 million if members favour a major overhaul of the secondary education system when they meet on Wednesday. That could provide a significant dent into the council’s efforts to shave £3.25 million from its education budget.
Approving next week’s recommendations would mean youngsters from Aith will transfer to the Anderson High School in August next year.
Meanwhile Sandwick pupils will go to the AHS in 2016 once the new high school has been built – or earlier if the existing school can find room for them.
Councillors are also being urged to consider axing secondary education in Whalsay, Yell and Unst for S3 and S4 pupils from 2015/16. That will mean youngsters being sent to the AHS from the beginning of their third year.
The recommendations were released a day after youngsters presented postcards listing their favoured after-school hobbies to councillors. The children fear increased journey times due to school closures will impact on their leisure time once their lessons have finished (see separate story on page six).
Mr Davidson said the SIC must enjoy the dubious accolade of taking the longest time possible to reach a final decision on its education provision.
He called on councillors to bear in mind the effect possible closures have on pupil and staff morale.
Mr Davidson said: “Shetland EIS members are particularly concerned by the effect protracted indecision is having on pupil and teacher morale, never mind the potential it has to divide communities.
“Shetland Islands Council surely must have set a record for the longest time for any local authority to come to a decision on its education provision.
“We urge councillors to ensure that any decisions made at the forthcoming education and families committee meeting focus on the future of Shetland education and not solely finances.
“Although Shetland’s economy is going through a tough time at the moment the situation may improve. Decisions made now should consider future economic recovery. We would encourage councillors to listen to and take heed of all stakeholders when steering Shetland education to a bright future.”
The proposals by independent education consultant Don Ledingham recommend an ambitious partnership be forged between Shetland’s two high schools and the further education sector. SIC chief executive Mark Boden would lead the co-ordination of the alliance.
A “Shetland learning campus” could also be created, allowing schools to be seen as “interconnected” learning environments.
John Haswell of Aith Parent Council said he was “extremely disappointed” by the proposals to close Aith and Sandwick, and also for the other junior highs going down to S1/S2 – although he welcomed the idea of schools and colleges working together.
He said: “I wouldn’t dismiss the report out of hand. But I think as far as the junior high school model goes, it’s a very negative, retrograde step.”
Mr Haswell said the Our Schools Our Future campaign run by Aith Action Group would be stepped up.
“Not only is it carrying on – I think it goes to its next stage. The whole of the West Side is remarkably and beautifully united in its opposition to proposals to close Aith Junior High School.
“Up until this point we have been supportive and desperately anxious to engage with the education department.
“But the fact that this report has come out and the proposals that are going up to the council next week certainly won’t deflect us from our prime objective which is to see the future of education protected for West Side bairns.”
Acting chairwoman of Sandwick parent council, Jane Matthews, said education would suffer if the school’s secondary department closed.
She said: “It’s early days and we haven’t had a chance to digest the news or gather the views from the parents formally, but I know from what has gone before there will be huge disappointment across the South Mainland at this news that the council is going to move towards the closure of Sandwick secondary department.
“We need to look pragmatically at the situation and start a plan for a measured approach.”
The recent scrutiny of the school estate comes after a decision by councillors in September to discard previous plans in favour of a complete re-examination of secondary education.
The proposals going before councillors next week represent a combination of possibilities taken from five different options presented at public meetings in October.
In his report Professor Ledingham points to the halving of council reserves from £400 million, with £60,000 having to be taken from reserves daily in order to meet the gap between expenditure and income.
Teaching Shetland’s 1,453 secondary pupils costs the SIC £12,826, Prof Ledingham says – over £3,000 more than in both Orkney and the Western Isles.
His recommendations are broken down into three sections.
The first part relates to the school/college partnership, which pulls together feedback that showed people were enthusiastic about schools and colleges working together.
Part two focuses on the learning campus, which builds upon some of the ideas presented in the “telepresence” option previously put forward. If implemented, it could develop on-line access to all curricular learning materials at secondary schools.
The final section, part three, is about the “rationalisation” of secondary education provision. It highlights the “very little support” in communities for pupils to transfer to a new school at the end of S3. It therefore recommends a move from junior highs to the Anderson after pupils have completed their S2 education.
Director of children’s services Helen Budge said the proposals made by Prof Ledingham offered the best opportunity for pupils to learn.
She defended the service against claims education was becoming too centralised.
“We think, for an educational experience, S1 to S6 is best,” Mrs Budge said. “Where that is not possible, due to geographical reasons, we would want to see them retained in their community – which is the opposite of centralisation – for a period of time, and coming to get the best education for their senior phase.”
Mrs Budge said the postcards presented by West Side youngsters would be taken into account.
“We do ken, logistically, that it’s not everybody who is travelling up to 65 minutes [to school or home on a bus], because not everybody stays at the absolute farthest away point.
“We do ken that some young folk from the West Side do come and stay in the hostel. Equally, we ken that some young folk that could stay in the hostel choose to travel.”
Mrs Budge also paid tribute to education staff who had been involved in the process.
“It has been a huge piece of work and lots of staff have worked very hard on it, and we have really tried very hard to make sure all the detail is there for councillors to make an informed decision.”
However, Mr Davidson has also highlighted concerns about the time being spent by education officials preparing reports for the council. He said: “This is a time of great upheaval in Scottish education with teachers working hard to develop and deliver new courses under the auspices of Curriculum for Excellence.
“All of this is taking place against a backdrop of spending cuts and shortages of materials. Now more than ever they need support from central service education staff to help deliver these courses to the tight deadline set by the Scottish government.
“It is time for councillors to recognise that education lies at the heart of the Shetland community and to ensure that adequate resourcing is available to prevent the erosion of this vital service.”