Hundreds of people are expected to march through Lerwick’s town centre tomorrow to take a stand against possible school closures.
Pressure group Cure – Communities United for Rural Education – will take to the streets in protest over the far-reaching changes.
It comes as Education Scotland, the organisation responsible for “supporting quality and improvement in learning and teaching”, has cast doubt on whether the S1-S2 model being considered by the SIC has any educational benefit.
An estimated 500 people could attend the march, with bus-loads expected to arrive in the town from Unst, Yell and Whalsay. Others are also anticipated to arrive from Aith, Sandwick and the North Mainland.
The march is due to leave the Market Cross at 11am, before heading through Commercial Street and back along the Esplanade to the cross. Organisers say it is being billed as a “celebration” of rural education.
It also comes ahead of crunch meetings in the town hall on Monday to decide the future of Sandwick Junior High School. Members are due to debate ending lessons for S3 and S4 pupils.
However, the idea of continuing lessons for S1 and S2 youngsters at Sandwick has become an idea few are keen on, after Education Scotland indicated a clear case for it had “not been made”. The education authority also says the current S1-S4 arrangement at Sandwick is no longer viable.
In a Sounding Off piece in this week’s paper, education and families chairwoman Vaila Wishart suggests S1-S3 should instead be considered for schools in the North Isles, while S1-S3 or closure could be earmarked for mainland junior highs.
She warned the council should avoid “backing off” from making hard calls in the way the previous authority did, highlighting a cost per secondary pupil of just under £14,000 – more than double the national average. The isles, she says, cater for fewer than 1,500 pupils in their secondary years.
“We need to move on. I am optimistic that this council is not going to follow the behaviour of previous councils by taking fright and backing off from making tough decisions halfway through the term, because as well as representing the opinions of people in our wards, we are all signed up to the medium term financial plan and have to look at the bigger picture. The choices get tougher as the options narrow.”
She warns keeping the school estate as it is and meeting the SIC’s medium term financial goals could – in a worst case scenario where £2.5 million of savings are sought – result in the removal of all school operating budgets and reduce the subject choices for secondary education.
She also says sticking to an S1-S4 model of education would leave the council struggling to offer the “exciting” Shetland Learning Partnership project, which has been developed, to all pupils.
“It must be clear now to all but the most die-hard opponents of change to the junior high school system that S1-S4 is no longer viable because of the way the curriculum is being provided.”
However, Jonathan Wills says the council should press ahead for closure. In November Dr Wills spoke out against the motion by education and families vice chairman George Smith to consult on keeping Sandwick and Aith schools open until the end of S2.
Speaking this week to The Shetland Times, Dr Wills described the idea as “a dog’s breakfast”, and insisted the council should move for closure.
“If the S1-S2 version has failed to convince Scottish education officials then obviously we haven’t made the case for it. And that’s because it can’t be made. We’ve done our best, but it’s not going to work.”
He also wondered what the effect would be on schools in the North Isles “if money is being spent unnecessarily on too many schools elsewhere.”
“That’s why I’ve been surprised to see the North Isles members voting, so far, for a policy which I don’t think is in their constituency’s best interest.
“Likewise, I am a bit surprised that some Lerwick members don’t understand that, if you spend money on Sandwick and Aith unnecessarily, there will be less for the pupils in the Anderson High.
“The Anderson High is not a Lerwick school, purely. It’s for the whole of Shetland. Every single ward in Shetland sends pupils to Anderson High.”
Organiser Gordon Thomson said tomorrow’s march was designed to “concentrate the mind” ahead of Monday’s town hall meetings. But even protesters, it seems, have little truck with the S1-S2 model.
“We feel that if Sandwick becomes an S1-S2 school, the other junior high schools will probably follow suit, even though there are consultations still to take place. I think it would be the beginning of the end.
“Our attitude would be we would like to see S1-S4 schools. We are holding out for what we think is the best option.”
He said he was looking forward to a strong turn-out at Saturday’s march. “We are deliberately billing it as a celebration of rural education.
“Some of these things in the past have been a bit personal and some of the slogans, and so on, have not been terribly complimentary. We are consciously trying to avoid that. We appreciate what’s been done for education in the past, and we would like that to continue.
“We’re perfectly happy with the set-up at the moment. We feel the Anderson High and Brae High School do a good job. We’re not criticising them. We feel that there is considerable investment in these [rural] schools in terms of resources and staffing, and we’d like to see them continuing, otherwise you will have a gradual drift towards the centre.”
However, centralisation is not something Dr Wills is worried about. He insists closing country schools will benefit all of Shetland. He described the previous model for secondary schools as “a time-warp”.
“It’s a very pleasant, comfortable time-warp, but we can’t afford it any longer, and now it doesn’t actually deliver the education that’s required under Curriculum for Excellence – and that’s not fair.
“It’s not fair to pupils in the junior highs and it’s certainly not fair to pupils in Brae and Anderson High, whose resources are being reduced because we’re persisting with junior highs.”
● A petition has been launched calling for the Clickimin campsite, which has been closed to allow the construction of the new Anderson High School, to be saved.
Sandwick woman Carina McLatchie is urging the SIC to think again. She says it would be “ideal” if an alternative solution could be found which would allow the new school and the campsite to sit alongside one another.
Her online petition had secured almost 700 supporters by Wednesday afternoon.
Ryan Taylor has worked as a reporter since 1995, and has been at The Shetland Times since 2007, covering a wide variety of news topics. Before then he reported for other newspapers in the Highlands, where he was raised, and in Fife, where he began his career with DC Thomson. He also has experience in broadcast journalism with Grampian Television. He has lived in Shetland since 2002, where he harbours an unhealthy interest in old cars and motorbikes.