SHETLAND Islands Council is to close the secondary department of Scalloway junior high school next summer, a move they say will save more than £700,000 a year from the authority’s £42 million schools budget.
A separate proposal to close the three pupil secondary department on the island of Skerries was narrowly defeated, much to the delight of islanders who had travelled through snow to Lerwick Town Hall to follow proceedings.
Parents from Scalloway said they were deeply saddened and disappointed with Tuesday’s decision by the SIC’s services committee.
Scalloway is the first school to be closed under the council’s Blueprint for Education, designed to reshape the islands’ schools network and help the service reduce its budget by £5 million over the next three years.
Most of the money will be saved by implementing changes in the way teaching is organised, but five primary schools are also facing the axe under the Blueprint.
Tuesday’s decision will have to be ratified by the full council on Wednesday, and could be called in by the government, if Scottish ministers feel the council has not made an adequate case for closure on educational grounds.
Karen Eunson, the vice chairwoman of the Scalloway school parent council, said she was bitterly disappointed and vowed to keep fighting to retain secondary one to four education in the village.
“The parents, the pupils and the whole community are strongly supporting the school because they recognise the value of what is provided.
“They also recognise that this has been a very biased process right from the start, and the projected savings that they are saying they will make are unrealistic. That’s our reason to campaign so strongly,” she said.
After a debate lasting almost two hours, the committee decided by 13 votes to nine to close the 120 pupil department. The projected savings of £707,000 will mainly come from salaries and saved operational costs.
Committee chairman Gussie Angus said the council had to respond to drastic changes in demography, with falling school rolls and an aging population.
Education spokesman Bill Manson added that “nobody wants to close a school”, but warned councillors that the necessary savings could not be achieved by efficiencies alone.
Shetland Central member Betty Fullerton, who represents Scalloway and is the services committee’s vice chair, warned that the council was undermining its own policy on decentralisation.
But veteran councillor Florence Grains argued that here was a clear case of overprovision and duplication, saying no other local authority in Scotland had two secondary schools within a 10 minute drive of each other.
She was supported by Jonathan Wills who said that if the council started from scratch, Shetland would have half of its 34 schools.
Meanwhile the proposal to close Skerries secondary department on mainly educational grounds was defeated by 12 votes to ten after isles councillor Josie Simpson made a passionate case for the status quo.
The schools service had argued that the island’s three pupils were being denied the opportunity to access the wide range of courses and classes in Shetland’s mainland schools.
Councillor Wills said the council was undermining the children of Skerries. “We are denying them life choices,” he said.
But a narrow majority agreed with the argument put forward by councillors Simpson and Henderson, who said that closing the small department would take choices away from parents and children.
Mr Henderson, who represents the north isles, praised the small island’s enterprising fishing industry saying that Skerries has possibly the biggest fishing fleet per head of population anywhere in the world.
At first islanders could not believe their luck when the result of the narrow vote was announced.
Speaking shortly afterwards, Skerries school parent council chairwoman Denise Anderson said: “I feel absolutely relieved and delighted about the decision. It means everything for the Skerries community.
“By keeping the secondary department of the school open, families will remain in Skerries. Removing the department would have been devastating.”
This is the fourth attempt by councillors in Shetland to close Skerries and the third to close Scalloway in the past 10 years, but previous efforts to close a school for political reasons has fallen in the face of community led protests.
Councillor Manson said he was pleased with the outcome. “While I am disappointed for the educational standards we can maintain, I fully understand the concerns of the Skerries community,” he said.
“I am pleased that we have taken the difficult decision to close Scalloway; I think that was the more important decision for the Blueprint of Education.”
However Tuesday’s meeting revealed that the SIC still has difficulty showing corporate leadership, an issue over which it has been roundly condemned this year by local government watchdog, the Accounts Commission.
Despite a council decision in June to enter into the statutory consultation process to close these two secondary departments, four of the most senior councillors voted against their officers’ recommendations – convener Sandy Cluness, vice convener Josie Simpson, infrastructure chairwoman Iris Hawkins and service committee vice chair Betty Fullerton.
Speaking during the debate, councillor Wills said: “People who should be leading the council are jumping ship.”
The services committee also decided to relocate the Anderson High School from its present site at The Knab to the new greenfield site at Lower Staney Hill.
Members requested to be presented with a design brief and breakdown of costing by next summer.