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Parents plead: Think again!

Uyeasound school bairns

PARENTS in Shetland are calling on local councillors to think again and seriously consider the future of the isles’ outlying areas before deciding to close four tiny primary schools.

Uyeasound, Burravoe, North Roe and Sandness schools were earmarked for closure back in June last year, following extensive consultation. Councillors will now make a final decision on their fate on Tuesday.

Parents in all four locations have been campaigning hard, saying the proposals would destroy the fabric of each of the tiny communities.

Shetland Islands Council says it needs to save £6 million from its burgeoning schools budget. The local authority also has to ensure that all pupils have equal access to education, which, councillors say, cannot be assured in smaller schools.

Uyeasound Primary school, on the island of Unst, is one of Scotland’s best performing primaries. In May last year, the 11 pupil school received an outstanding report from education inspectors who praised head teacher Kate Coutts, pupils and parents alike for their commitment.

Yet council officials say closing the school and transferring pupils to Baltasound, six miles down the road, would do no harm. It would save almost £100,000 annually and remove 2.6 jobs from the island. Closing all four schools on the list would save around £250,000.

Derek and Cheryl Jamieson made a conscious decision to move back to Unst five years ago to benefit from  the quality of life. They built a new house overlooking the bay and have three kids, Michael (10), Sam (9) and Natalie (5) at the school.

Derek, who is a farmer, also chairs the school’s parent council. From day one the community has worked tirelessly against the proposals by organising online petitions, lobbying councillors and organising open days at the school. They also submitted more than 200 responses to the consultation exercise.

But to no avail. Last month, the council’s schools service came out with its recommendation to go before councillors arguing that all four schools should close despite socio-economic reports suggesting that all closures would have a serious impact on local communities.

Derek says that nobody argues about the need to save money in tough economic times, but adds: “The school is an integral part of the community. It is one of the best performing schools in Scotland, and the schools service recognises that.

“To take that away from Uyeasound and the island of Unst would rip the heart out of the community, and inevitably lead to a decline in population numbers – people would move away over time.”

Parent Tim Holt, a relative newcomer to the island, has two children in the school with a third ready to start school in August. He says Uyeasound has everything going for it: a strong identity, jobs in the aquaculture industry and a thriving school. Closing it would be a devastating blow.

“Once you start trimming off the outer reaches of Shetland, centralising everything, which is what these acts are, then you destroy the outer communities.

“Of all the schools they have closed, I think there is only one that has ever opened up again. You see the death of these places – it is very, very sad.”

Catriona Waddington, who lives in Baltasound where her daughter could go to school, has opted instead to send her to Uyeasound because of the quality of education.

“When we moved to Baltasound we heard about this school; we investigated it and we met the head teacher and the other staff. It seemed to us that it was an outstandingly good school doing lots of interesting things.

“Yes, every morning we have to drive the six miles there and the six miles back, but to us it is well worth it, because this is a special school, well rooted in the community, and my daughter is keen to come to school every morning,” she says.

SIC education spokesman Bill Manson says that the public in Shetland agrees that schools with a roll of less than 20 should be considered for closure.

In response to the Uyeasound parents’ views, he adds: “The information that Uyeasound is a high performing primary school comes from a recent inspectorate report, which was glowing and which the community has drawn to my attention.

“However, the same inspectorate has to do a report on the potential closure, and it is not saying that there will be any ill effects on the children’s education, if they move to Baltasound.

“The council is considering this in the course of trying to maintain the quality of education in Shetland at a price which tightening local authority finances can afford.”

As decision day approaches parents from all affected communities are preparing to travel to Lerwick to witness proceedings in the council chamber on Tuesday morning.

Derek Jamieson has this message for councillors: “These schools are performing very well and have a very valuable function in all four communities. They are valuable assets for the long-term future of Shetland, and it would wise to keep them open.”

The SIC operates 33 primary schools, six junior high and two high schools. If the proposal to close the four primary schools goes through on Tuesday, they will close on 7 October with end of the autumn term. Consultation to close a fifth primary school, at Olnafirth in Voe, will commence in August.

Photo: ‘A special school, well rooted in the community’ – pupils at Uyeasound Primary School – Photo: Malcolm Younger (Millgaet Media)