Shetland is among 12 local authorities being excluded from £11.5 million in government funding aimed at closing the attainment gap in secondary education.
Education minister John Swinney has been told budget constraints mean extra funding from the SNP-led authority would make a “significant difference” to the education of young people in the isles.
It comes after the Scottish government announced the distribution of funds to help secondary pupils based on area, rather than targeting individual children in need.
Isles MSP Tavish Scott, and his Orkney counterpart Liam McArthur, have written a joint letter to Mr Swinney, calling for a fairer approach.
Mr Scott said the Scottish government had chosen to allocate funding to over 100 secondary schools, but not one school in Shetland or Orkney made the list. He said the SNP administration had made a misguided decision in choosing to prioritise some students over others. Children in the Northern Isles who were living in poverty, he said, were being unfairly passed over.
Mr Scott has raised the issue after holding discussions last week with director of children’s services, Helen Budge.
He told this newspaper: “The [Scottish] government allocate that money on local authority areas using a funding mechanism which does not help Shetland and it doesn’t help most local authority areas of Scotland.
“Every time these things are done, for example, on the number of pupils who take free school meals, Shetland does not benefit from that policy at all because we have a historically very low level of take-up for free school meals.”
Mr Scott added the funding mechanism was “the wrong way round”.
“It needs to be based on the pupil, and on the school, not on the local authority area.”
He said that principle had been used in Wales, which Mr Scott said was more effective.
“MSPs across the parties have been making a case for a more sophisticated and better way of doing it. It’s not a model they need to invent – it’s a model which is being used in Wales – and that is widely seen as having some positive benefits.”
In a letter to Mr Swinney, Messrs Scott and McArthur state the funding regime punishes children who are living in deprivation, simply because more of their peers are not.
“Schools within Orkney and Shetland are well-placed to recognise which of their pupils would benefit from additional funding to support their learning and broader wellbeing.
“The budget constraints facing headteachers mean that any extra funding from the Scottish government could make a significant difference to the education of a young person in Lerwick or Stromness.”
They called for an approach which targeted the needs of “the individual child rather than an area-based approach”.
“After resisting what was a compelling argument with regard to primary school pupils, the Scottish government eventually appeared to accept this approach after a series of incremental changes.
“It is disappointing, therefore, to note that lessons have not been learned and that again the government seems intent on pressing ahead with an area-based approach that ignores the needs of young people in the communities we represent.”
Chairwoman of the SIC’s education and families committee, Vaila Wishart, said the Scottish government needed to recognise the needs of rural places such as Shetland.
“I think our isles MSPs are right to be concerned about the distribution of attainment funding. It highlights the importance of island proofing,” she said.
“A one size fits all approach may be fine for urban areas but does not necessarily work in islands or, indeed, in other rural parts of the country.”
In an unattributed statement, the Scottish government said Shetland had already been allocated more than £56,000 in funding over recent years.
It added tax reforms would result in cash being handed to schools, although the system will be based on eligibility for free school meals in primary and S1-S3 education.
“Delivering equity and excellence across Scotland’s education system is the Scottish government’s defining mission and in the two years up to 2016/17, Shetland have been allocated £56,680 through the attainment challenge innovation fund.
“The Scottish attainment challenge has been targeted on those authorities and schools with the highest concentrations of children and young people living in areas of multiple deprivation.
“However, from next year, the £100 million that will be raised as a result of local tax reforms will be issued directly to schools.”