The council’s top official has hit back against claims that the authority” flouted the law” to avoid legislation aimed at protecting communities from repeated school closures.
SIC chief executive Mark Boden has insisted the SIC acted within the law when it last month postponed talks which could have led to the closure of secondary departments in Mid Yell and Whalsay.
The council came under parliamentary glare after the chairman of the Scottish Rural Schools Network, Sandy Longmuir, complained to education secretary Angela Constance about the SIC decision.
But Mr Boden insists no-one from within the isles has approached the authority to complain.
“If somebody thinks the council has erred in law they can drop me a line. Nobody has. But they need to tell me why, and how – and they haven’t.
“It’s interesting that the people discussing this are not Shetlanders – if a resident of Shetland, a parent, parent council, want to drop us a line and talk to us about why they think we erred, please do. We don’t think we did.”
He said the “real issue”, however, was about education, rather than a “dry, legal argument”.
“The councillors made a decision the other week, in full possession of all the facts, both from the educational attainment angle, but also from the angle of what the parents and parent councils and residents of Shetland thought. They decided that the case had not been made for a substantial change to the secondary education system in Shetland, yet.
“They didn’t need a law to make them. They decided not to go forward and to wait for at least two and a half years to the construction of the Anderson High School to see how things look then.”
The issue first came to light when Mr Longmuir heavily criticised the SIC for its decision not to publish consultation reports on Mid Yell and Whalsay, thus allowing it to examine revised proposals in 2017 rather than imposing a five year moratorium.
His case was taken up by Conservative education spokeswoman, Liz Smith MSP, who tabled a parliamentary question asking whether the council had behaved properly.
Now, a written response has been released from Minister for Learning Alasdair Allan MSP, which indicates the authority is carrying out a review to ensure it has complied with statutory requirements.
“We fully expect local authorities to comply with the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 (as amended by the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014), including the requirements regarding publishing a consultation report and observing a five year restriction on further consultation,” Dr Allan stated.
“I understand that Shetland Islands Council is reviewing its position to ensure that it complies with all the requirements imposed on it by the legislation.”
Mr Longmuir said the written response put the authority under pressure.
“They can find no words, no language, to be able to support Shetland Islands Council in the actions that they’ve taken.
“It’s quite clear that Shetland Islands Council is under some quite severe pressure in order to comply with the legislation as it’s written.”
He added he was “worried” that Shetland Islands Council had not publicly admitted it was carrying out a review of its decision.
“The fact that Shetland Council haven’t done that is worrying me. I was led to believe that they were going to back down gracefully.”
However, Mr Boden insisted: “Essentially, what the MSP is saying – and they are right – is that the interpretation of law is for the individuals involved, in this case the council. It’s not a job for the government.”
After Mr Longmuir’s letter to the education secretary was released to the press, a number of MSPs called on the SIC to make public the legal advice it had received in order to help lay the matter to rest.
But Mr Boden said he did not feel that would help bring a solution to the problem.
“I have to say that I think a dry, legal argument about the technicalities of a clause in an act somewhere is a digression.”