Shameful tick-box tactics (Jeremy Sansom)

Almost daily we hear of a politician, banker, chief executive or other prominent person railing against the accusation of some misdemeanour saying: “I have done nothing wrong … I haven’t broken the law …”

There is a disconcerting trend among those in authority of sailing as close to the wind as possible to stay just within the bounds of legality; the letter of the law trumping the spirit of the law.

Since the publishing of the Blueprint for Education in August 2012 and under the guise of legally constituted statutory consultations, our council has conducted a determined and callous campaign to close rural junior high schools, assiduously striving to remain within the legal framework.

Parents and communities have rallied to defend their schools as much out of anger and indignation at this cynical exploitation of the law and the trouncing of the democratic process as out of the attempts to tack the labels “educational merit” and “massive savings” onto their insidious campaign. And they are not finished yet despite the welcome breathing space afforded by the recent decisions of the full council.

Welcome then is the interjection by the respected Scottish Rural Schools Network (SRSN) and its assessment that the latest convolution of the council, to simply abandon its consultation process for Yell and Whalsay, has actually crossed the line into illegality.

This is a serious charge, but no surprise to the many people involved in this protracted campaign to keep these highly credible schools open.

We have witnessed the incredible contortions of school-slaying elements within the council: like the insatiable mythical Hydra, if the assailed victim manages to lop off one of the monster’s many heads, two more grow in its place!

As SRSN chairman Sandy Longmuir rightly points out, the spirit of the revised Scottish legislation on school closures is overwhelmingly intent on protecting rural communities. The flagrant flouting of the spirit of the legislation has been shameful and deeply distressing for our communities.

We have seen many examples of tick-box tactics to comply with the letter of the law, like the botched and totally inappropriate pupil consultations, hurriedly imposed on the schools when the education department realised that this requirement had not been met. Tick. Glee. One more nail in the junior high schools’ coffin.

Moray Council, when recently faced with a similar credible rejection of its school closure proposals, honourably abandoned them, saving money and a huge amount of grief and distress among its communities and submitting to the legal requirement of a five-year moratorium to lift the threat and shadow of closure.

I understand the cost of the many incarnations of the blueprint to be close on £750,000. If the “closure” process is now being stood down until a brand new assault can be mounted (in what could be less than two years’ time) who then is to be held accountable for this vast waste of the council’s (our) “finite” resources?

I would suggest after the glib and supercilious remarks of the chief executive last week (“Boden insists schools decision is lawful”), which reveal he has little appreciation of the gravity of the fiasco over which he has presided, that he must bear the brunt of the responsibility.

His statements are an incredible indictment of his ignorance of the impact his officials’ battering-ram policies have had on Shetland’s rural communities.

Well he did show up to at least one public consultation meeting. His unguarded irritation at the considered views of the consultees alarmed many of us.

This is not a man who listens and neither do his officers in the education department. Their undisguised closure agenda has been unwavering from the outset, despite every effort of parent councils and community groups to be meaningfully engaged in the dialogue.

If his desk is not buried under letters of protest, it is probably because the surfs from the remoter reaches of his fiefdom are utterly exhausted from two and a half years of remorselessly combating the feudal dictates of his cloistered henchmen.

“Dropping a line” to our sympathetic chief executive has little appeal – it will only generate more debilitating waffle. We are busy people without the handsome wages to sustain us that the upper echelon of the council’s decision makers enjoy – wages that will continue to be paid regardless of the eventual outcome.

A five-year reprieve that the required moratorium would bring is essential, but unless there is a change of leadership within the council, instead of a comprehensive and informed debate by all stakeholders to shape the future of secondary education in Shetland, there will simply be a tactical regrouping ready for a fresh onslaught by officials in 2020.

But of course the continuing “asset stripping” of the junior high schools may well have crushed the life out of them long before then …

Jeremy Sansom


Add Your Comment
  • John Tulloch

    • March 11th, 2015 23:36

    Mark Boden started work in October 2012 and may indeed carry some culpability for what happened under his watch.

    However, this fiasco was brewing for a very long time before he arrived. Councillors like education chair Vaila Wishart, whose May 2012 election address expressed enthusiasm for rationalisation of schools, Jonathan Wills and others had the school closures well under way, well before we had ever heard of Mr Boden.

    And while politicians must, ultimately, ‘carry the can’, the officers of Children’s Services, having been “up tae dir ocksters” in it for many years, haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory.

    There needs to be a proper, open inquiry, not yet another fall guy ‘riding off into the sunset’ with a bulging money belt while the culprits escape, ‘scot-free’.

    • Jack Brunton

      • March 12th, 2015 21:12

      As I read the I’ll informed wordy sentiments of Messrs Samson, Longmuir, Tulloch et al, I wonder just who they think they are benefitting with their aggressive posturing. I look forward to them taking their positions in the council come the next election. They will clearly win by a landslide given that they speak for the whole of Shetland. They even adopted oor flag for oor crusade, don’t remember being consulted on that. Alternatively will they go back into the shadows till the incoming council tries to effect some change or other, to emerge with some more mud to sling. I challenge them to stand for what the claim to believe in come election time, oops though, some of these worthies don’t even live in Shetland.

      • John Tulloch

        • March 13th, 2015 1:01

        Which ward will you be standing in?

  • Councillor Jonathan Wills

    • March 12th, 2015 21:42

    On returning this week from my annual holidays, I collected my back numbers of The Shetland Times from the Bressay shop. Scanning the pages I’d missed, I could find no trace of an explanation, from the three North Isles councillors, of why they all voted on 18th February against my proposal that the council should guarantee the future of secondary education at Mid Yell and Symbister, and instead consult on closure of the secondary departments at Baltasound, Aith and Sandwick, where there could be clear educational and financial benefits. Perhaps the North Isles members have been too busy, explaining their actions to their Yell and Whalsay constituents in private, to make any public statements?
    Nor could I find, in the back numbers, any explanation from those Lerwick councillors who last month voted, in effect, to reduce the cash available for the three town schools by continuing to support more country schools than Shetland needs or can afford.
    What I did find in The Shetland Times and online was a deplorable, ignorant, personal attack by Jeremy Sansom on the motives, integrity and competence of the council’s chief executive, Mark Boden. Mr Boden was indeed only doing his job when he appeared on local radio and at a public meeting to explain council policy. I have seen a few chief executives in my time and in my opinion Mr Boden is doing a good job and fully deserves our support, as do our senior education officials – whose professional advice the council has unwisely ignored yet again.
    I wish I had the same confidence in some of my fellow councillors, who seem determined to put off, until after the next SIC elections in May 2017, the unpalatable but necessary decisions we should be taking now about the future of education in Shetland.
    Yours sincerely,
    Councillor Jonathan Wills
    Independent, Lerwick South ward

    • John Tulloch

      • March 13th, 2015 0:59



      Gary Robinson recently made the point – and you have made it yourself, too – that the Scottish government (SG) provides £29.5Mpa towards Shetland’s education spending of £48.5Mpa, a £19Mpa shortfall.

      Q1: Is the money from the SG based on the Scottish average cost per pupil? If not, how is it arrived at?

      Q2: How much money do Orkney and the Western Isles receive from the SG and what are their total expenditures?

      Q3: If Shetland has a £19 million pa shortfall and Orkney and the Western Isles do not, why is that so when Shetland’s primary and secondary costs per pupil are about the same as Orkney/W.I.?

      Q4: Why does the SIC so meekly accept the funding gap and go straight to school closures without first putting up a fight with Holyrood?

      • Gary Robinson

        • March 17th, 2015 10:36

        I’m happy to answer John Tulloch’s questions.

        Q1. The grant that the council receives isn’t based on the Scottish average cost per pupil. What is often referred to as the cost per pupil doesn’t include all education expenditure in any council. It merely represents a basket of expenditure that’s benchmarked across local authorities.

        The amount of grant is dependant upon the total amount of money given to local government by the Scottish Government. This is then divided between the 32 Scottish councils using a funding formula. The formula has around 100 indicators such as the number of young people in each council area, the number of elderly people, the length of roads maintained etc. There’s been an overall real-terms reduction in the SIC’s grant of around 19% since 2010. The reduction in cash for education will have been more than that because we have had falling school rolls for some years now. The reduction in cash for social care will have been less because we have an ageing population; add to this the fact that we’ve had to save well over £20M a year to avoid bankrupting the reserves, then you realise the reduction in expenditure has been greater than in any other Scottish council.

        Q2. Orkney receives £22.1M from the Scottish Government against expenditure of £28.6M while the Western Isles gets £27.9M against expenditure of £45.9M. This compares to Shetland receiving £29M against expenditure of £48.3M; these figures are like-for-like costs across all of education from pre-school to HE/FE.

        Q3. Orkney and the western Isles do have a shortfall as explained in the response to question 2. The number of pupils in each authority is also a factor – Orkney has slightly fewer than Shetland and The Western Isles has significantly more.

        Q4. I don’t think we “meekly accept” anything but it’s hard to argue that you’re poorly served when provision is far in excess of other places. For example; Shetland has one secondary school per 200 square kilometres or so, while the Western Isles and Argyll and Bute, for example, are closer to one secondary school per 600 square kilometres. You know the geography of Argyll and the islands better than I so I’m sure that you can judge the travel implications better than me.

        I have highlighted our funding gap to government ministers and the fact that councils now find themselves with funding gaps has also been acknowledged in the latest report from Audit Scotland:

      • John Tulloch

        • March 17th, 2015 13:45

        Thank you for the clarification, Gary, it’s helpful and appreciated.

    • Johan Adamson

      • March 13th, 2015 8:55

      Dont you think we deserved correct figures and proper consultation over the school closures? By proper consultation I mean for the Education dept not to have made up their minds to close schools to save money before they got all their facts and list of educational benefits together?

      Dont you think that we deserve an explanation, ie as many have called for, to have sight of the legal advice the dept took showing they could shelve the consultations only to dust them off later? So now the people who were involved in writing the legislation are somehow wrong about what they meant to say?

      This is all basically a lesson in how not to run a consultation is it not?

    • Christopher Ritch

      • March 14th, 2015 10:37

      Jonathan, I remember you voting to shut Sandness & Burravoe primary schools back in 2011, and blustering about needing to save 31 pounds, small schools are too expensive etc etc. But recently you have put Sandness & Burravoe onto your list of special schools which you believe should remain open! What a pity your mind was so closed in 2011 that you could not consider the arguments which you now agree are correct. Your mind is still closed regarding Baltasound. Perhaps you are not aware of the recent stormy weather while you were away on holiday. The Bluemull sound ferries were tied up. Can you explain how it will benefit the education of pupils from Unst when they cannot get to school on a windy day? What will happen if they go to school in Yell and cannot get home again? Closing Baltasound school is not a viable option. Perhaps you will come to realise this in another few years.

      Another thing you may have missed while off on your annual break – The professional advice from senior education officials is not as good as you think. In fact, it is selective and misleading.

      Take a deep breath and try looking at this from a neutral perspective. Take your blinkers off!

  • John Tulloch

    • March 18th, 2015 14:48

    @Gary Robinson,

    Thank you, once again, for the school costs clarification.

    Naturally, it’s all hideously complex and raises further questions; here’s my understanding:

    The total money received (“General Fund”?) is based on c.100 factors, including the number of “young people” (?) in each area which, presumably, is, at least, analogous to the numbers attending schools.

    The Western Isles, where I have also lived, receive even less money than Shetland, despite having a higher number of pupils. However, they have a lower total spend, leading to a similar-sized funding gap. This lower spend is likely down to their more favourable geography, in terms of fixed road links between islands.

    Presenting the number of schools in relation to land area (sq km/ school) is a red herring, a meaningless comparison. I have lived in both Argyll and the WI and both have vast swathes of uninhabited or very thinly-populated land with populations concentrated around fairly conveniently-spaced towns.

    Fixed road links make for reasonable daily access to schools, certainly, for the vast majority and it isn’t easy to think of places where a secondary school could be justified that there isn’t one already – Islay and Mull, for example, with populations of 3000-3500, both have six-year secondary schools!

    Orkney has a much lower funding gap of about £5Mpa versus about £20Mpa, each, for Shetland and WI.

    This is interesting because Orkney’s total education spend is only about 60 percent of those of Shetland and WI – £20Mpa less! – despite having five more inhabited islands than Shetland and so, presumably, more primary schools while, also, having only two fewer secondary schools?

    Orkney’s population is over 90 percent that of Shetland and there are about 180 fewer secondary pupils, attending 5 schools versus Shetland’s 7.

    It’s inconceivable that closing, say, Baltasound and Aith secondary schools would save around 40 percent of Shetland’s expenditure on schools, so something else must be going on that we have yet to learn about.

    1. For a start, I must question whether Orkney’s annual spending figure does, indeed, reflect “like-for-like” cost structures and if it does, then – accepting that ‘cost per pupil’ doesn’t cover all education costs – where the heck is Shetland’s (and WI’s) £20Mpa extra spending going when costs per pupil are nearly identical?

    2. If all three island groups education systems are under-funded and those of mainland, councils are not, and if funding level is determined using numbers of “young people”, then it appears that adequate account of the isles’ geography, especially, Shetland’s, cannot be included in the funding formula.

    3. Does the SIC know exactly what terms comprise the funding formula and if not, why not?

    • Christopher Ritch

      • March 18th, 2015 19:46

      Could it be that the SIC spends much more trying to close schools? Orkney & Western Isles perhaps do not have the same additional costs?


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