Strategy for secondary education in Shetland – a response

Dr Lilian Moncrieff from the School of Law at the University of Glasgow, writes in response to the Strategy for Secondary Education in Shetland (SSES), released last week.

I became concerned reading the report that important issues bearing on the future of secondary education in Shetland are not being addressed in such a way as to meaningfully bear upon the decisions, which lie before council members this Wednesday.

This is, in significant part, due to the efficiency discourse that seems to have wholly overtaken the judgment of children’s services, which struggles with all appreciation of family, community, social and substantive educational values on account of their difficult measurement and quantification in economic terms.

No research or even discussion is relayed, in the report, which addresses the depreciation of personal, family and community time or relationships involved for rural students.

At its worst, the report directs readers to a somewhat dubious (and highly subjective) fantasy in which family life is succeeded by access to a hand-held ICT device and an ensuite toilet.

I entreat councillors to reject plans for the rationalisation of secondary education proposed on Wednesday and offer the following pieces of research (a few from many) in opposition to the narrowing exercise, which is being advanced in education and well-being.

I note that preferable to the research would be to listen to experienced members of the community, concerned about these issues, and every impact that I have noted here says little more than what has already been said.

However, where engagement of external consultants is an approach designed to supersede listening, I have used research as a way to engage decision makers and substantiate public concern.

1. Family and community impact

Oncescu and Giles (2012) observe many shifts in the interpersonal relationships of rural families as a result of school closure in Canada. Families with school-aged children drive greater distances for school-related activities, putting a strain on family leisure time.

Extended family members, such as aunts and uncles or grandparents, have fewer opportunities to interact with the young and their parents (and they are also less likely to be part of the school community). This change, participants reported, affects the “closeness” of families.

The study found that school closure drives students and their parents into outlying communities for school-related activities. This “disconnects” parents and school aged children from their local community; peer-to-peer relationships in the village are affected.

New relationships are also fostered out with the community, proving resilience and the creation of new communities. However, this does not obliterate the observed casualties for the rural community and family relationships.

The research raises important questions about whether the loss of these in situ communities is something that a rural society (like Shetland) can or should tolerate, particularly where it requires acting against a community’s chosen values or autonomy.
For more on the social impact of rural school closures, see Witten et al (2009, 2003) (loss of community knowledge, disengagement of distant parents from school communities), Egelund (2006) (reduced opportunities for social cohesion in rural Scandinavia) and Miller (1993) (weakening of intergenerational bonds, parental influence) – all pertinent considerations for decisions that affect secondary age children.

2. Outdoors experience

The RSPB (2010) “every child outdoors” campaign cites the extensive research emerging on the diverse benefits for children of contact with nature and outdoor experiences, with positive impacts on education, creative thinking skills, physical health, emotional well-being, personal and social skills, and responsible citizenship.

Do SSES recommendations for rural children (centralising and urbanising education for many) maximise these benefits, and how does the promise of “at least one outdoor experience per term” (SSES) compare with the current outdoor resources available to rural JHS students in Shetland (travelling less, not requiring two lane carriageways, and studying in a rural environment)?

Kellert (2005) discusses time spent outside “particularly during the critical period of middle childhood” (7 or 8 to adolescence) as “an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving and emotional and intellectual development”. This raises questions about busing children from a younger age and not at the more mature 16.

Also interesting is Louv (2010), describing various impacts on young people of increasing immersion indoors and in virtual environments (a “nature deficit”) and calling for more direct experience of the outdoors in education and beyond, and Natural England’s report (2010) on the value of nature and wilderness for teenagers, specifically. This is a growing body of research, which seeks a revival of outdoor sensibilities.

3. Commuting

Community respondents have already said plenty on this subject. However, where the SSES report, at p36, describes the disadvantages associated with extra travel and residential accommodation required for rural students as “subjective”, it is not enough; concerns are not being addressed.

Research carried out for the Scottish government on commuting to school (2002) testifies to effects on children’s physical and mental health, cognitive and social development. Physical exercise, self-image, participation in extra-curricular activities, educational performance and particular (eg spatial) skills are affected. This is in addition to the impacts on outdoor experience cited above.

Research on adult commuting, for some time now, has shown a link between longer commutes and higher levels of mental and physical health problems, generally less happy and contented people (Frey 2011, Gallup 2010). There is no reason why these findings would not apply equally to children, where if anything the impact could be more pronounced.

4. Private sector involvement in secondary education

There is extensive reference to this possibility in the report. If this is a serious direction for education in Shetland, surely it should be addressed in terms of the advantages and disadvantages that it brings more directly; mentioning energy companies as education providers casually – as the report does – is not acceptable, particularly where it takes on the status of a reason to move young people out of their community.

I would ask councillors to think about training for livelihood as one vital part of education, and not the whole. It is also something that should not serve the interests of economy before the interests of rural children, whose complex and multi-dimensional needs might just be nourished more appropriately by community and family relationships in the early years of secondary education rather than engineering clubs and hospitality courses – whatever happened to volunteering in the kitchen at the community hall.

I refer councillors to the possibility of obtaining an entirely different perspective simply by hiring a different expert (eg Professor Karl Jan Solstad, a Norwegian expert who grew up in a small rural island community and has worked on rural schools and curricula, studying school closures and the impact of long journeys on student well-being since the mid 1960s), and using the insight obtained to take their own decision on the recommendations made in the report.


Add Your Comment
  • John K Smith

    • November 12th, 2013 9:43

    This is a GREAT response. I wonder how many members of the Education and Families Committee (the committee) will even read it, let alone take any notice.
    After some inputs yesterday I now believe that the committee and moreover, the whole council, are only interested in being seen to make apparent financial savings. I believe that they do not care if the savings are real, since they do not know what they may be, but rather just want to close schools, however excellent they are, merely to be seen to make an attempt at cost saving.
    It is a tragedy if that is true.
    We all know that there is no educational benefit in closing these schools, they are amongst the best.
    We all know that communities will suffer badly.
    It is increasingly obvious that the committee and the council as a whole do not know if any savings will be made, or more likely if costs will increase as a result of closures.

  • amanda caukwell

    • November 12th, 2013 9:59

    When we moved here we deliberately picked a rural area and access to Baltasound school. Our child’s additional needs make groups of people a real issue for him. He has been able to learn without these pressures. He now has friends and yes his group to pick from is much smaller but his life is all the richer for it. What ever the council does he will never attend Anderson as a boarder or day pupil. It seems that Illegal immigrants can avoid deportation by claiming right to family life over a cat ownership but our Isles children have no right to the most basic right to being in their family. It would also seem that the cost in financial terms to the council has also not been assessed. Given children with additional needs requiring additional help is the council prepared for all the readers and scribes required to assist these children who will need it in the hostel home work room every evening and the additional expense of all the additional helpers all and every evening plus escorts to take some of these children to and fro each week. Is the council really prepared to take on the parents role with these children with the daily battles over changing clothes and washing. Do they have staff able and trained to explain life skills and social issues …all week every day. Autistic children for example are hard work and need a lot of emotional support. Does the council have the fully trained staff to deal with what parents deal with on a daily basis? Will there be readers and scribes in class to assist and will these be consistent all week every week like parents. What crossover in care and understanding will there be between school helpers and evening helpers. It seems that to protect the most vulnerable children parents may have to move. Moving to the catchment of a small non closing school will not be an option in Shetland. It would seem that the council is killing communities and destroying the long term future of island communities in the misguided belief that it is saving money when In fact it will be costing money. It is also possible that some one will try to use human rights legislation and cost the council a lot of money in court costs. Communities need their children and we need our schools or else there is no community.

  • George Gillon

    • November 12th, 2013 14:06

    The closure of rural schools, primary and secondary will be the death knell for communities in Shetland. Bressay is already suffering, as the youth leave and never return. The SIC mafia are as forward looking as a cow’s tail! I commented many weeks ago about how attractive to ‘incomers’ the rural community set up is and I for one, chose to live in such a community with my family (opposed to Lerwick where I worked). I can only pray that these ‘elected members’ get off their hobby horses and see sense and reality for once.

  • Ryan Jozwik

    • November 13th, 2013 14:47

    Fantastic letter Lilian. If everyone was being honest, the Council have been very short sighted with a lot of decisions and decision making in recent months and years. Yes, there is money to be saved, but education leads to potential future income for the Islands.

    If you look at the major local businesses here in Shetland who export goods and/or services and so improve the GDP and economy of our Island, you will find a lot of those entrepreneurs started life out in rural communities, were educated in rural schools and continue to live and work in those areas. Will this continue to happen in future with the proposed changes to our high schools, that is a question I cannot answer, but the question is, have council members even considered such elements of this? Or has only the financial aspects “really” been considered?

    Anyway, I have gone of on a tangent, and really the point of this was to commend you on a fantastic letter, and who knows, maybe the councillors did take time out to read this and it may have made some difference today. After all, Lilian, it seems you have perhaps taken out more time to research this subject than some of our councillors, and it certainly seems you are a lot more educated. If only people like yourself were on our council.


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