School closure plans shelved as councillors call for government meeting
A call has been made for a council meeting with Scottish government ministers to discuss the way forward for education.
The plea by education and families vice chairman, George Smith, comes after committee members officially abandoned plans to either reduce pupil numbers at Whalsay School and Mid Yell Junior High, or close the secondary departments altogether.
The unanimous agreement needs to be approved at a special full council meeting later today.
If approved, it will pave the way for a five year moratorium on school closures in those areas.
Mr Smith said a meeting needed to be held with the new islands minister, Humza Yousaf, as well as his predecessor, Derek Mackay, who now holds the brief as finance secretary, and education secretary John Swinney.
Mr Smith highlighted signs of changes within education, with the Scottish government indicating it would be putting more resources into schools.
But he said discussions within Holyrood around the development of regional boards raised questions for the isles.
The developments come against a backdrop of continued funding pressures for the council’s schools service.
Children’s services is under pressure to make £5 million in savings within the next five years. It is estimated that up to £735,000 could have been saved by ending secondary lessons at the island schools.
But Scottish government policy presumes against the closure of rural schools. A consultation report has highlighted a “political unwillingness” to implement any school closure proposals in Shetland’s school estate.
Mr Smith argued: “We’d be fooling ourselves if we don’t realise there are challenges ahead for education in Shetland.
“Added into the mix is the new Scottish government and their policy changes that we are hearing about. Things like regional boards and what effect that might have on our management of education.
“We have an ongoing funding issue in this council. We don’t get enough money to do what we want to do.”
He added that the service had made continual year-on-year savings in keeping with medium term financial plan.
“In my view we can’t keep on doing that.
“I think we need to be taking that challenge to the Scottish government, and asking for an urgent meeting.”
He was backed by Davie Sandison, who said a strategy was needed to develop the council’s own lobbying effort.
Chairwoman Vaila Wishart, who moved the recommendations, said curriculum changes were all “coming to a head”.
“I fully endorse George’s view that we should try to seek a meeting with ministers,” she said.
The decision to step back from closure comes after widespread opposition to changes in the school estate.
A staggering total of 97.1 per cent of responses disagreed with ending S4 classes at Whalsay, while an even higher number – 97.7 per cent – were against closing the school altogether.
In addition, 53 per cent of respondents who submitted a written response expressed an explicit preference to retain S1 to S4 provision at Whalsay School.
We have an ongoing funding issue in this council. We don’t get enough money to do what we want to do. GEORGE SMITH
Meanwhile, at Mid Yell, 96.4 per cent were against the idea of ending S4 provision, while 96.7 per cent opposed closure.
If implemented, the plans would have seen pupils from the isles transferring to the new Anderson High School.
Today’s meeting, described as a “rubber-stamping exercise” by Ms Wishart, came after councillors stepped back from closing primary schools at North Roe and Urafirth two years ago.
Councillors later agreed to complete the formal consultation for Mid Yell and Whalsay – paving the way for the much sought-after moratorium aimed at providing stability in the communities which have faced continued threats to their education services over the years.
At today’s meeting, Ms Wishart said some consultation responses attacked the integrity of people working within children’s services – something she said was unacceptable.
Views frequently expressed among oral and written responses were that children’s services “lacked credibility, did not know what they were doing and could not be relied upon to provide accurate information”.
They also described the statutory consultations as “financially driven and part of a larger, ongoing plan to centralise services in and around Lerwick,” according to papers put before members.
Ms Wishart said: “In both these papers, in their responses to them, there have been a series of attacks on the integrity and professionalism of those working in children’s services which, in my view, is unfair and unacceptable because, firstly, they can’t answer and, secondly, they are always untrue.
“All the allegations are rebutted in the consultation report.”
She added her experience of working with staff in children’s services had confirmed her belief that they were “professional, honest and diligent”.
“Any suggestion to the contrary needs to be rebutted quite firmly.
“Disagreeing with proposals is fine, and councillors are fair game, but denigrating the people that are trying so hard to provide what is an excellent education service for this community are not on.”