The prospect of closures among rural secondary schools has re-emerged following the cooling-off on proposals to end secondary lessons after S2.
Councillors have agreed to consult on closing three isles secondaries – in Yell, Unst and Whalsay – as well as the Mainland junior highs in Sandwick and Aith.
But in a change to previous consultations feedback will also be sought at the same time on, alternatively, ending S4 classes at the schools, making them junior highs covering S1 to S3.
Today’s education and families committee agreed to open up the consultations from September. The decisions are likely to be ratified at tomorrow’s full council meeting.
Should that get the go-ahead the new round of consultations will begin in just over two months, when a proposal paper will be published on the future of Mid Yell Junior High School and the Whalsay School.
If everything runs to schedule a final decision on those schools are expected to be taken next February.
The meeting of the education and families committee in December next year is expected to reach a conclusion on Baltasound’s secondary department, after statutory consultation begins in August 2015.
October 2015 will see talks begin over the future of Aith and Sandwick junior highs. The future of those schools will not now be known until March 2016.
The recommendations come after the council agreed last month to go back to the drawing board on what to do with the school estate, after plans to maintain S1-S2 secondaries proved unpopular – despite a backing for S1-S2 last year by education consultant Professor Don Ledingham.
Members took little time to agree to the proposals this morning.
After the meeting director of children’s services Helen Budge said the decision to consult on two outcomes was made following talks with Holyrood, and consideration of what other local authorities have done in similar circumstances.
She added that the authority needed to consider its options, given that the S1-S4 model was no longer thought viable by educational experts.
Mrs Budge said: “For S1 to S4, Education Scotland has said that’s no longer viable, so now what we’ve got to consider is ‘how are we going to deliver our secondary education in Shetland’?
“The other two options that we have is S1-S3 and closure. To do that, in a fair way, is to go out and say, ‘okay community, here’s the options that we have in the context of what we’ve learned before from you … here’s all the evidence on what it would look like. What are your views on it’?”
Education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart said looking at two options for all the schools in question would be “a fairer way to do it”.
“If they [communities] don’t want S1-S2, then we look at S1-S3 in detail,” Ms Wishart said.
Education chiefs insist the best solution, in an ideal world, is an S1-S6 model. However, the isles geography and population spread makes that an unrealistic prospect.
Vice-chairman George Smith said the high standard of education needed to be maintained.
“What I believe we have to try to demonstrate is that, if we are going to have S1-S3 schools, that we are not compromising the pupils who go to those schools in an educational way. Surely we wouldn’t want to do that,” Mr Smith said.
“Therefore, we have to be able to find … a comparable level of education in an S1-S3 school as they would achieve if they were in an S1-S6 school. Then it comes down to a question of ‘can we resource it’?”
A potential headache facing councillors is a separate report highlighting the cost per pupil in the isles compared with those in Orkney and the Western Isles.
Gross expenditure figures for 2012/13 show the cost per pupil in Shetland to be £13,657, compared with £9,780 in Orkney and £9,759 in Eilean Siar.
Despite the Western Isles having the largest land mass, and Orkney the biggest number of populated islands, both island groups have five schools teaching secondary education compared with seven in Shetland (excluding Skerries).
The meeting heard the most inefficient school across the three island areas was Baltasound. Its total budget per pupil was listed as £26,449 – compared with £15,775 in Orkney’s similarly-sized Stronsay school. Baltasound’s tally of teachers has also been put at at 8.15, more than double Stronsay’s 3.78.
The council is faced with a delicate balance as it struggles to reduce the ratio between pupils and teachers, while simultaneously trying to maintain S1-S3 schools and ensure the same educational benefits can be maintained as in S1-S6 schools.
Mr Smith said the authority should not shy away from looking at efficiencies.
He said: “But you always have to look at the other side of the coin, which is ‘what’s the effect of making those efficiencies’?
“If that is detrimental in terms of the educational value of what you are trying to deliver you have to think, ‘is that efficiency worth taking’?
“We should at least understand what the efficiencies might be, and then you can make a valued judgment as to whether you think you should take them or not.”