School consultations are the “symptoms and not the cause” of uncertainty over possible closures, the council leader has claimed.
Gary Robinson says a threatened budget shortfall is behind people’s fears, rather than much-dreaded talks over the future of the school estate.
Mr Robinson was speaking at today’s education and families meeting, where members agreed with recommendations to end statutory talks over Mid Yell Junior High School and the Whalsay school until at least 2017.
Future consultations over similar proposals for secondary departments at Baltasound, Aith and Sandwick were also brought to a halt.
A report presented by quality improvement manager Audrey Edwards outlined “overwhelming opposition” to plans which could either have led to the closure of the departments or, alternatively, an end to lessons for S4 pupils.
The thinking behind the plans is to hold off on the consultations until 2017 when the new Anderson High School is built and the Shetland Learning Partnership is established.
Scottish government legislation on schools consultation means going ahead with the talks would have resulted in a five year moratorium if the council were to step back from closure. Late last year members voted against closing primary schools in Northmavine following an outcry from parents in the community.
Speaking today religious representative Martin Tregonning said he “fully endorsed” the proposals. But he was concerned that any “uncertainty” was unhealthy. He highlighted North Roe, which went through 14 years of consultation.
Mrs Edwards said a meeting had been held with the leaders of parent councils last week to discuss the proposals. Because of the weather at the time, only two could attend, but she said the mood was positive.
Mr Robinson said uncertainty over future budget allocations from the Scottish government had been the main cause of people’s fears.
“Consultations are the symptoms, not the cause, of the uncertainty we’re in,” said the political leader.
Despite surpassing a £715,000 savings target for the next financial year, with around £1.5 million of savings identified, children’s services still need to find £926,990 savings during 2016/17. Thereafter cuts of two per cent are needed in each financial year up to the end of 2019/20.
The total £3.165 million in savings is set against a backdrop of a fall in the block grant allocated by the Scottish government from £91.9 million in 2013/14 to £85.3 million in 2015/16.
One of the committee’s other religious representatives, Tom McIntyre, highlighted anxiety among teachers and staff.
“I was wondering what you can do to keep up staff morale in these circumstances,” he told Mrs Edwards. She said regular discussions were held with head teachers, who were asked to make sure all staff were informed of any potential changes.
Theo Smith wondered what impact there would be if the long-awaited high school faced further delays beyond 2017.
Director of children’s services, Helen Budge, said a revised timeline would be brought forward in two years’ time.
Moving the motion, chairwoman Vaila Wishart insisted the authority’s education policy was still on course.
“The strategy for education remains the same. It’s quite clear to me the majority of councillors – the majority of people – are not ready to accept changes to the school estate.”
The move also means hall of residence and transport fees will be waived for pupils in their senior phase of secondary education. That should help offer young people the chance to move to other schools to access subjects. It is believed doing so will help with the running of the Shetland Learning Partnership.
The one caveat is that consultations could be introduced at an earlier stage if the council’s financial position worsens and Children’s Services is required to reconsider its plans earlier than 2017.