EDUCATION officials are recommending that four rural primary schools in Shetland close, saying it will save the authority more than £250,000 a year and safeguard the rest of the service.
A two month consultation drew massive opposition to the plans to close schools in Uyeasound, Burravoe, North Roe and Sandness, all of which have received excellent reports from inspectors.
However the Shetland Islands Council schools service say they must make a £5 million cut to the overstretched £42 million education budget, the highest per pupil in Scotland.
If councillors back the recommendations, 37 pupils will be sent to the nearest school at Baltasound, Mid Yell, Ollaberry or Walls.
Socio economic reports for the four affected communities published with the consultation reports on Tuesday reveal that the closures will have a serious impact on their local economies and probably lead to depopulation.
Yet SIC head of schools Helen Budge said that if councillors fail to back the proposals, the money will have to be found elsewhere.
“At the moment we have too many schools for the number of pupils that we have. The council have asked us to make savings and the only options we have are to make cuts across the board or reduce the size of the school estate,” she said.
The proposals have received the backing of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Education (HMIE), who believe children will do better in larger schools with finer facilities.
The oil rich authority has already courted controversy of late in its bid to rein in expenditure by scrapping primary school knitting classes and charging for music tuition.
Further reductions are being proposed by reviewing education for disabled children, increasing the size of primary classes and cutting four jobs from the central administration. The number of school support staff may also be reduced.
Almost all of the 600 people who responded to the Blueprint for Education consultation opposed the closures, arguing that the impact on children’s education and their communities was unacceptable.
Nairn economist Steve Westbrook, who drew up the socio economic reports, suggested Uyeasound, North Roe and Sandness would be particularly badly hit while efforts to rejuvenate Burravoe would be undermined.
Uyeasound’s school roll has fallen from 18 to 10 in the past decade, but closing the school will hit an island trying to revive itself after the loss of the RAF base at Saxa Vord.
As well as losing the equivalent of 2.6 full time jobs, three families are likely to leave the island, including that of head teacher Kate Coutts.
Closure will save the council an estimated £96,692, money that will leave the local economy and lead to the population centralising around Baltasound, the only school left on Unst.
In Burravoe the savings are estimated at £58,397, but plans to build a new community centre and maintain a viable population will be undermined if families leave the area, either moving to the Shetland mainland where the bulk are employed or closer to Mid Yell where the 11 pupils (down from 16 in 2001) will attend if the closure goes through.
North Roe is the poorest community in Shetland whose only full time job plus six of its 12 part time posts will go if the school closes and its eight pupils (down from 14 in 2000) attend Ollaberry, which parents prefer as an option to Urafirth.
However while the council will save an estimated £46,702, the community is likely to lose around £100,000 and Mr Westbrook said it could have “a serious effect” on its long term sustainability.
The roll at Sandness, Shetland’s first purpose built school dating back to 1852, has grown from five just three years ago to eight today, with another child due to attend next year.
However the council hopes to save £54,904 by sending the children seven miles down a single track road to Walls, which parents have said is unfair and potentially dangerous.
Again Mr Westbrook has warned that people may well leave the area as the benefit of living in a rural community is diminished without the school and outweighed by the cost of commuting to Lerwick, where most inhabitants work.
He added that the closure would be a threat to the Sandness spinning mill, where any reduction in employment would be “a devastating blow to the local and wider economies”.
The department contends that in all four cases the pupils will be better off from receiving their education in a modern, fit for purpose learning environment with access to a larger peer group creating more opportunities.
Officials also stress that this will help schoolchildren throughout the islands, by creating “a more efficient cost-effective model of school education delivery…thus contributing to the sustainability of the excellent quality of education provided to all pupils in Shetland, in the current challenging financial climate”.
The SIC’s services committee will debate the proposals on 10 May and if they go through, all four schools will close on 7 October at the end of the autumn term.
In August a consultation will commence on the future of Olnafirth primary school in Voe.
In December councillors demonstrated their determination to tackle the education budget by voting to close Scalloway secondary department in the face of a huge community outcry. Their decision to go ahead and save an estimated £700,000 eventually received the support of the Scottish government, who had called the decision in.
At the same time members chose to protect the fragile economy of Skerries by keeping its three pupil secondary department, the smallest in Scotland, at a cost of £70,000 – money which will now have to be found elsewhere.
The consultation reports can be found at http://www.shetland.gov.uk/education/BlueprintforEducation.asp