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Almost like a Eurovision Song Contest

Councillors deciding to close two primaries and keep two open - Photo: Garry Sandison

PARENTS from the north isles have been left perplexed after councillors voted on Tuesday to axe two island schools while offering a reprieve to the two mainland schools on the Blueprint for Education hit list.

Accusations of “hypocrisy”, “electioneering” and “putting a price on bairns” were banded about Lerwick Town Hall.

At one stage the debate became so hot tempered the term “bullshit” was used as councillors delivered their astonishing pattern of votes during a four hour long special meeting of the soon-to-be-deceased services committee. Tuesday’s decision will have to be ratified by the full council next week.

After the meeting parents from Uyeasound and Burravoe were bitter that the educational and socio-economic cases to safeguard their schools had not been heard.

Parents from North Roe and Sandness, in turn, were delighted and said they hoped that they will now be left in peace to get on with their lives.

Uyeasound parent council chairman Derek Jamieson said: “It is very disappointing for us and for Burravoe, but it is good news for the other two schools.

“I am very surprised how the voting went; it seemed to me almost like a Eurovision Song Contest the way councillors voted today.”

Burravoe parent council chairman Steven Brown added: “It’s a disaster for the north isles. We will see what happens next week. I will do my damnedest trying to convince some of the councillors to change their mind.”

Lindsay Angus, from North Roe, said: “We were extremely lucky. It was touch and go. We could have in no way predicted what way it would go.

“People in North Roe who have gone through similar consultations before are sickened with these processes. There is no real outlook of security for the future, because it has already been suggested to do this again in the first year of the new council.”

Alan Robertson, from Sandness, acknowledged that his community was on the lucky side “this time” and expressed his support for the two schools that have lost out.

“I am disappointed for Uyeasound and Burravoe, because their schools and their communities are just as important as ours in Sandness,” he said.

The proceedings, in front of around 20 parents at Lerwick Town Hall, kicked off with an attempt by north isles councillor Laura Baisley to have all four cases debated together. She was advised that was not possible as each school closure had to be judged on its individual merits.

Head of schools Helen Budge told the meeting that the council’s current model of education was no longer affordable due to “high unit costs” and “falling school rolls”.

She said she had been tasked to identify 15 per cent savings from the £42 million schools budget, while at the same time ensuring that all pupils in Shetland have access to equal learning opportunities.

Uyeasound primary was the first on the list. Councillors Robert Henderson and Josie Simpson argued passionately that the educational case to close one of Scotland’s best performing primary schools had not been made.

But the majority of councillors were not convinced by their argument and agreed with former services committee chairman Gussie Angus that the nearby school in Baltasound had an excellent record and was “grossly underused”.

After an hour of debate, councillors voted 13-7 to close Uyeasound and send the 11 pupils six miles down the road to Baltasound as of October this year, realising savings of around £96,000 per annum.

The meeting then moved on to Burravoe primary school. Mrs Budge told the meeting that £110,000 per annum could be saved, rather than the £58,000 mentioned in the consultation papers, as no new teacher needed to be employed at the brand new Mid Yell school.

Councillor Henderson said that bussing pupils from Burravoe to Mid Yell would effectively mean sending four and a half year old kids on “one of the worst single track roads in Shetland” to work a longer day than their teachers.

He said that over the last 40 years Yell had seen the closure of seven primary schools and insisted that the island could not accept any more.

Councillor Wills advised him “to give it a rest”, saying his strategy amounted to nothing more than “emotional blackmail”. He and others demanded to hear how alternative savings could be made should Burravoe school not close.

“Every time we dodge these difficult decisions, the financial guillotine has to fall somewhere else,” councillor Angus said.

When it came to the vote, 12 councillors were in favour of closing the school, eight were against.

Following a comfort break, the council’s education spokesman Bill Manson took over chairing the meeting as acting committee chairwoman Betty Fullerton had to go to a funeral.

It was north mainland councillor Alastair Cooper’s turn to make the case for keeping North Roe primary school open, focussing on the socio-economic impact study that suggested that closure would have a serious long term impact on the viability of the fifth most deprived community in Shetland.

“If we close this school, we will be spending more money propping up the community,” he warned.

By that time councillors Angus and Wills had got hold of the latest information on the council’s finances, suggesting that the council’s oil reserves had now fallen below the £250 million watershed due to movements on the stock market.

Councillor Wills suggested that with the unknown legal cost of the Bressay bridge fiasco plus the £8 million of council contributions towards the tug men’s pension funds, Shetland Islands Council could find itself in a position next year where it had to find savings of £38 million.

“I am not alarmist, but the financial chickens are coming home to roost,” he said, adding that it would not be school closures that ripped the heart out of communities, but the bankruptcy of the council.

However some councillors were convinced North Roe was a special case – most notably Bill Manson, Caroline Miller and Gary Robinson – and in consequence the voting went in favour of keeping the eight pupil school open.

The final school on the list was Sandness primary. The meeting heard from local councillor Frank Robertson that the community had turned its fortunes around despite having lost its shop and post office.

The success of the woollen mill meant that new people were moving into Sandness, resulting in the school roll increasing by 23 per cent. The community continues to grow, councillor Robertson said, with 16 pre-school bairns now in the village.

Westside councillor Gary Robinson added that Happyhansel school in Walls, which would take the Sandness children if it closed, was one of the poorer schools in the council’s portfolio, and therefore a “significant difference” to all the other cases.

At this stage the tensions in the council chamber were strained to breaking point, with some councillors voting to close some schools and to keep others open.

Councillor Wills reminded fellow members that the interests of Shetland and not their individual ward should be at the heart of their decision making, while councillor Duncan said that keeping these schools open would lead to “a waste of public funds”.

He lamented the poor “corporate leadership” and repeated his demand for the council’s leadership to resign. “The sooner the next council elections come around, the better,” he said.

A frustrated councillor Baisley then blurted out that she could no longer stand the “hypocrisy”, and asked why councillors could not see the similarities with the schools that have not been saved. “I am pretty fed up with the bullshit here,” she said.

Councillor Miller and Wishart suggested that North Roe and Sandness were special cases, to which councillor Angus retorted there was as good a case to re-open Gulberwick school, because the massive housing estate had more bairns in it than the whole of the north of Shetland.

Councillor Manson observed: “I find myself in the odd position of lending support to mainland and not to island schools.”

At the end, 13 councillors voted to keep Sandness open while six followed the recommendation to close.

Should North Roe and Sandness remain open, annual funding for each pupil across all schools in primary and secondary will have to be reduced by £30.70, the council’s school service said.

How the councillors voted:

Josie Simpson: keep Uyeasound, keep Burravoe, keep North Roe, keep Sandness;
Gussie Angus: close Uyeasound, close Burravoe, close North Roe, close Sandness;
Laura Baisley: keep Uyeasound, keep Burravoe, keep North Roe, keep Sandness;
Jim Budge: close Uyeasound, close Burravoe, close North Roe, close Sandness;
Alastair Cooper: keep Uyeasound, keep Burravoe, keep North Roe, keep Sandness;
Addie Doull: keep Uyeasound, keep Burravoe, keep North Roe, keep Sandness;
Allison Duncan: close Uyeasound, close Burravoe, close North Roe, close Sandness;
Betty Fullerton: close Uyeasound, close Burravoe;
Florence Grains: close Uyeasound, close Burravoe, close North Roe, close Sandness;
Iris Hawkins: keep Uyeasound, keep Burravoe, keep North Roe, keep Sandness;
Robert Henderson: keep Uyeasound, keep Burravoe, keep North Roe, keep Sandness;
Jim Henry: close Uyeasound, keep Burravoe, close North Roe, keep Sandness;
Bill Manson: close Uyeasound, close Burravoe, keep North Roe, keep Sandness;
Caroline Miller: close Uyeasound, close Burravoe, keep North Roe, keep Sandness;
Rick Nickerson: close Uyeasound, close Burravoe, close North Roe, close Sandness;
Frank Robertson: close Uyeasound, keep Burravoe, keep North Roe, keep Sandness;
Gary Robinson: close Uyeasound, close Burravoe, keep North Roe, keep Sandness;
Cecil Smith: keep Uyeasound, close Burravoe, keep North Roe, keep Sandness;
Jonathan Wills: close Uyeasound, close Burravoe, close North Roe, close Sandness;
Allan Wishart: close Uyeasound, close Burravoe, close North Roe, keep Sandness;

Council convener Sandy Cluness and councillor Andrew Hughson were not present on Wednesday.

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