Closure-threatened primary schools in Northmavine have been given a reprieve after councillors stepped back from letting the axe fall.
Members of the education and families committee showed little appetite for closing Urafirth and North Roe primaries during a lengthy debate in the town hall.
Chairwoman Vaila Wishart moved North Roe alone be closed, but lost 7-4 after a counter motion was put forward by North Mainland member Andrea Manson.
A subsequent motion from Ms Wishart to retain the Urafirth school and nursery gained unanimous approval. It followed more than three hours of discussion after a report was presented by quality improvement manager, Audrey Edwards.
It recommended the closure of both North Roe and Urafirth primaries next year – along with Urafirth’s nursery. Youngsters faced having their lessons continued in Ollaberry instead.
The plans came as part of the second phase of the renewed “blueprint for education” proposals, with an anticipated annual saving of £156,000 – reduced from over £190,000 once transport costs were factored in.
Children’s services have already saved £7.5 million in the last few years, however a further £4.673 million is being sought within the next six years.
Mrs Edwards said bringing the schools together would provide more educational benefits for youngsters, offering a better learning environment and a chance for children to mix more with their peers. But the proposals caused consternation among parents.
Yesterday a petition bearing 212 signatures was presented to SIC convener Malcolm Bell.
Today’s meeting heard widespread concerns that travel times for children could go beyond the agreed 40 minute limit.
And socio-economic reports showed closing North Roe Primary School could herald a loss of jobs, with the head teacher being the only non-crofting full time post.
A similar impact would be felt in Urafirth, members were told, with the shop among businesses potentially losing trade.
Responding to questions from West Side member Frank Robertson, Mrs Edwards said amendments would be made if buses struggled to meet the 40 minute time limit.
Members were told of the 36 minutes it took for secondary pupils to travel from North Roe to Brae High School – a route which includes five pick-up points.
But Ms Manson raised the possibility of extra buses having to be laid on – while fellow councillor for the area, Alastair Cooper, insisted a three minute gap would be needed at stops for the driver to ensure children were properly seated and secured for the journeys.
Ms Manson said an impressive tally of 53 pupils was anticipated across the three schools by 2019/20 – and that did not include the “buns in the oven” that were known about already. The figure is up considerably from the 30 youngsters children’s services anticipates will be in the schools next year.
Asked whether she felt, as an ex-teacher, that contact with pupils remained of a better standard in smaller school, Mrs Edwards said the service had studied research from the Sutton Trust which showed smaller class sizes were a “high cost strategy” with low impact.
A key factor among the proposals is the anticipated cost of keeping the school buildings at North Roe and Urafirth fully up to scratch.
Combined maintenance savings over the next five years have been estimated at over £95,000.
Ms Manson wondered if the high maintenance cost at North Roe, estimated at £85,000 over the same period, was because of regular repeated periods where closure was a very real threat.
Mrs Edwards admitted maintenance budgets had been reduced, but not to the extent that schools were put in a deteriorating condition.
Other questions came from North Isles member Robert Henderson. He wondered how the costs of operating the schools compared with those in Orkney or the Western Isles. Specific figures for this year were not available at the meeting, but the committee was told primary statistics were comparable with other island groups.
“It’s back to my argument, ” concluded Mr Henderson. “If things are not broken, why fix them?”
Fellow North Isles councillor Gary Cleaver said it would be wrong for Shetland to compare itself with other areas.
Peter Campbell said it was right to recognise how fragile communities could be. He said a “cyclical pattern” had emerged, with North Roe fluctuating over 40 years between a one and two-teacher school. He questioned whether Ollaberry would be granted a five year moratorium on closure if the schools in
Urafirth and North Roe should be spared the axe. He imagined a “ridiculous” potential scenario where the receiving school in the current consultation is earmarked for possible closure in a future one.
However, political leader Gary Robinson said the council had to operate in challenging times, and questioned why there had been a decline if schools were the best way of retaining population.
Vice-chairman George Smith said he had been weighing up whether to support the recommendations. He thanked Mrs Edwards for her presentation, and said he was “not convinced” Northmavine needed three schools to flourish.
Putting forward her motion, Ms Wishart said: “We know that children benefit from interaction with their peers.”
However, in her summing up Ms Manson said it was important to listen to what communities were saying.
“It’s very important to prove that consultation is not a box-ticking exercise,” she said.
The committe’s decision will go before members at the full council meeting tomorrow.