Secondary school departments at Aith and Sandwick have been saved from closure following a massive day of debate at the town hall.
However pupils in the West Side and South Mainland may only be educated in their own communities until they reach the end of S2.
That was the proposal by vice chairman of education and families, George Smith. His call to save pupils fresh out of primaries from the prospect of lengthy bus journeys or stays in the Lerwick hostel found favour with other councillors.
Members voted 18-4 in favour of his alternative plan during a full council meeting lasting over two hours. That came after a lengthy education and families meeting where councillors also backed Mr Smith by 10 votes to two.
The move means director of children’s services Helen Budge will begin preparing a consultation on the changes from as early as tomorrow.
It comes after education consultant Don Ledingham prepared a lengthy report which recommended both Aith and Sandwick junior highs be closed as part of an effort to save £2.3 million from the education budget – a good chunk of the overall £3.26 million which needs to be saved.
Other junior high schools in Whalsay, Yell and Unst will also see their education for third and fourth year children brought to a halt, as recommended.
Bus-loads of campaigners turned up at the town hall before today’s meetings in what was recognised as the largest public demonstration in over 20 years. Before the first of the meetings began a petition of over 1,800 signatures gathered in just 72 hours was presented on the steps of the town hall.
Around 140 people filled the main hall up the stairs to listen to the debates, and regularly stamped their feet on the floor above the chamber to make their feelings clear.
Retaining at least some of the secondary schooling in Aith and Sandwick will leave a potential shortfall of £600,000 in the efficiency plans.
However Mr Smith said that was a small price to pay for equal education across the isles.
He pointed to savings of £7 million that had been made by the education department in recent years. Approving the report would leave the council spending 32 per cent of its budget on schools, compared with a 39 per cent education spend in other local authorities.
Mr Smith called for a report to be brought back to councillors on how much more cash would need to be saved once the statutory consultation has concluded – but that was only after his initial calls for all council budgets to be examined prompted an uncomfortable reaction from fellow members.
Referring to the strength of protest from parent councils in the run-up to the meeting, Mr Smith said councillors would have heard “loud and clear” the concerns being expressed across the isles.
“We owe it to Shetland communities to come forward with a sustainable educational system,” he said.
He was supported by West Side member Frank Robertson who said the farthest out pupils in the West Side would face journey times of 80 to 85 minutes, rather than just over an hour which has previously been reported. Backing Professor Ledingham’s recommendations would amount to “going back to the fifties”, Mr Robinson insisted.
“Pupils from the outlying areas are going to be completely disadvantaged compared with those from Lerwick. They are going to miss out on after schools activity.”
Mr Smith’s proposal did not meet with unanimous support, however.
Jonathan Wills insisted backing Mr Smith would “drive a bus through” the council’s own financial and education policies.
“This is gross financial irresponsibility on a grand scale. The auditors are watching this council. We’re not out of the woods. A year ago we were selling £100,000 of stocks and shares a day to pay the wages that would have generated £5,000.”
However members preferred the idea of retaining Aith and Sandwick after hearing assurances from chief executive Mark Boden that the constitution allowed for the change of plan. Asked by Dr Wills whether the move was legal, convener Malcolm Bell said that would only become a factor when decisions were made on actual closure. The report before councillors today, he said, was only a strategic document.
Earlier in the day the original proposal, to close Sandwick and Aith junior highs, was proposed by chairwoman Vaila Wishart but was only supported by one other councillor.
More from today’s meetings and reaction to the news in Friday’s Shetland Times.