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Live: Commission for Rural Education

The Commission for Rural Education commissioners after Tuesday's meeting at Sound primary school. From left: rural economy professor Bill Slee, convener Sheriff David Sutherland and Scottish Borders Council education director Glenn Rodgers

THE SCOTTISH government’s Commission for Rural Education held a public meeting in Lerwick’s Sound primary school on Tuesday evening to hear views on the future of education in remote parts of the country.

Shetland News reported live from the proceedings where 72 local people turned up to contribute to the commission’s investigation.

20:50 David Sutherland is now closing the meeting, thanking everyone for being so passionate and for being willing to listen to what others have to say.

Jonathan Wills proposes a vote of thanks and eveyone applauds

20:48 Jim Nicolson – I know rural schools that have a budget of less than 40% of what it was. We also have composite classes. We should not be divisive between town and country, the important thing is our children’s education.

John Fraser – we should not isolate ourselves in our own parishes, we need a holistic approach to look at the big picture for the best of the whole of Shetland.

A lot of arguments from folk in rural areas are about the standard of the roads. If there was a quality road, would parents be happy to send their children to neighbouring schools or is this just being used as an argument aganist closure?

One Lerwick parent says she would have no problem sending Bell’s Brae children to Scalloway if it was to benefit their education. “These are some of the best roads you will ever have.”

20:45 Kate Coutts is angry about how the decision was made to close Uyeasound primary school during the holiday period, so some parents heard about it on the radio first. Future decisions should let parents and teachers have access to reports at least 24 hours before the public to give them time to adjust as happens with school inspections.

“It was very neglectful of the government to make that decision in the holiday period when they did”

Miller completely agrees.

20:42 Sutherland asks if parents ever take their children from the town to rural schools. Not in Shetland, Miller says.

However one woman says that where she came from that did happen. In Voe, where she lives, there are 26 children whose parents value the education they get there. Six possible primary one children are delaying sending their kids there at the moment because of the current threat to Olnafirth school. Again the threat of closure is having a direct impact on people’s decisions.

20:39 Wills questions school hours which make it hard for people to find childcare. In the Czech Republic, where his grandchildren live, schools open from 8am to 5.30pm, he says.

Sutherland says this is an issue elsewhere and there is a danger parents take their children to where they work and put their children to school there rather than keeping them in rural areas. That happens on Bressay, Wills says.

Bells Brae school’s parents council vice chair says they receive those children and if there was better “wraparound care” it could help prevent that from happening.

20:36 Alan Robertson – Peripheral areas are always under threat. We moved to Sandness in 2008 and were told they had been trying to close the school for 40 years.

How do you get on with your life when you have to keep stopping your life to keep the school open? We were trying to start a small business and had to stop to try and keep the school open. It feels like a David and Goliath situation.

Wills – In Lerwick we are seeing budgets for materials declining and if we don’t see a solution we will see parents complaining that too much money going to rural areas. It’s not a conspiracy by Lerwick, it’s a case of having to manage budgets. It’s called best value.

Adeline Fullerton – they closed Scalloway, they could close Bells Brae and put the children there.

20:30 Ian Isbister – local employers often employ local children. If they are all educated centrally the rural areas will decline, so it is important to keep the schools going to keep children in the area.

Slee – your point is a valid one.

Chris Brown, Voe – we need to be less romantic about rural schools, they are not all good. We have to be realistic.

Laurence Odie – it’s always remote areas that are put under threat. They could bus children out of Lerwick rather than bus them in!

20:25 Steven Brown, Yell, suggests there should be different ways of funding outlying areas. He does not know how that could be funded though.

Kate Coutts, Uyeasound former head now Nesting head – education is no longer ring fenced. Leading thinkers are now talking about a national education board like there is a national health board that will ring fence the money again.

Brown – that’s how we will do it.

Wills – we have to work with the current circumstances. I would be happy with that arrangement but there would need to be enough money.

Rodger – I disagree. There is not one council that is not spending more than they get from the government for education, so I suspect that set up would see the money for education being reduced. One reason is the growing cost of special needs and transport. I would also be concerned about how much it would cost to reorganise and the consequences of unpicking the current model.

20:18 Catriona Whittington, Uyeasound – Wills criticised people for questioning figures, but when we looked at how much was being saved by closing Uyeasound we found it was more than the cost of the school. The figures were eventually halved.

The council told the govt our children would have fewer transitions and already that is being changed with Baltasound now under threat.

There is a huge strain on children – my child has been at Baltasound for a few weeks and is already being told that might close. There has to be some kind of break off point for children being threatened who have just had their school closed.

20:15 Cheryl Jamieson, Uyeasound – we were told they couldn’t keep our school open to save jobs as that would be artificial. But if they closed the school they would send in a development worker. That seemed more artificial to me.

Slee – an economy has two kinds of jobs – basic jobs, dependent jobs. Without an economic heart creating basic jobs you don’t get services providing jobs.

Councils could disperse jobs, I think we need to be more creative and innovative about how we create jobs. Centralisation doesn’t make any sense to me, but I do see education as dependent on the economic heart not a source of basic jobs.

20:12 Hazel Cranie, North Roe – Will commission try and identify schools which are fragile where there is no economic viability outside the school and where council does not try to develop economically. Will there be an attempt to look at that?

Slee – if a school is in a very remote area it will not be closed because of the huge distance of travel. Really small schools are vulnerable because there is a school nearby, maybe 10 miles down road.

If you start looking at fragility it’s not just about economic fragility it’s about what’s nearby. An island school will stay open even if there’s one or two kids there.

Hazel Cranie – would you consider another category for economically fragile areas where the school is most important driver.

Slee – renewable energy could transform communities and turn them around. We should not  close things now which could be useful in the future, but at the moment we are in a global financial economic crisis and we can’t ignore that.

Rodger – you should look at the impact of closure on the wider community as part of the process.

Sutherland – the main drivers for communities are houses and jobs. If you have houses and jobs by definition you have people, children and schools. Sometimes it seems there is not much joined up thinking with community development 

I went to a remote area where they have built a fire station built under a primary school. It shows people there are looking at the needs of a particular community. 

20:03 Elaina Leach – the Anderson High School is far more prescriptive than Brae, who are more flexible. Because they are bigger they have less room for manouevre.

John Fraser disagrees vehemently and commends AHS staff, highlighting recent inspection report. Our children’s timetables were changed to suit them. My friends and families look back on going to AHS and staying at the hostel very fondly.

Jim Nicolson says some pupils went home because they could not stand the hostel.

Steven Brown, Burravoe, says for five years schools have felt under direct threat. 10 years before that they felt under threat too.

19:57 Lerwick councillor Jonathan Wills (who says he was locked out by Sound school’s security system when he was late for the meeting) defends the council, saying more is spent per pupil in Shetland than elsewhere.

Saying the figures were plucked out of thin air is “ignorant, malicious nonsense”. 

We are looking at the educational advantage of amalgamating schools that could work together. 100 pupils means you can get full range of classes for a reasonable price, he says.

We have a financial crisis, it’s worse than Greece. They have a 10% shortfall on their budget, we have a 20% shortfall. They can print money we can’t. If we don’t close schools and amalgamate we will have to close other things.

19:53 Woman says the Blueprint for Education is divisive and stressful. We must get back to looking at education as an investment and not an expense.

Ian Isbister, Aith – has there been an investigation of teachers moving between schools? If they shut schools they will need bigger buses, creating safety issues about buses being too big for the roads.

Rodger says the issue of moving teachers between schools is being looked at right across Scotland, as is the use of IT for working between schools. It will be looked at further, but more to maintain a range of subject choice rather than to save money.

Caroline Miller says that is already being looked at in Shetland

19:48 Reawick man says the council spends very little on rural areas

Bill Slee agrees that rural areas do lose out and if there was additional housing people might be drawn to the area, but there are two things that drive rural economies – demographics and economics.

If there is an economic heart people will want to move there, where there isn’t you get declining school roles and the case for additional investment is questionable. 

19:43 John Fraser, Lerwick – in Lerwick we have exceptionally high numbers in some primary classes which comes from having to compensate for maintaining rural schools, whose value I recognise.

Reducing the number of transitions in a pupil’s life affects their academic attainment and that should be considered too. He asks: is the current structure the best way of supporting education?

Elaina Leach – transitions can be beneficial if well handled, because they have to learn to cope with change.

19:40 Alan Robertson, Sandness – if the council was completely flush with money it wouldn’t be trying to close schools. They need to realise that keeping rural schools open is actually the cheapest way to keep rural communities alive.

Chris Brown, Voe – the council has been deeply incompetent financially, actually it’s much worse than that. £3m seems to have been plucked from thin air, and the figures in the consultation have certainly been plucked from thin air.

19:37 Wilma Missenden, Urafirth – nursery parents at Urafirth are not happy this meeting is just in Lerwick. They have asked me to say the school is important to the community, creates jobs, supports young families, houses have been built and these families are obviously worried about the future.

Bill Slee, comissioner – we know this happens.

Jim Nicolson, Aith – we often feel neglected in Shetland, our remote areas feel the same – that the focus is in Lerwick. Rural schools are extremely important to the economy and social life of the communities.

The £3m is not set in tablets of stone. The council has squandered millions and they need to spend their money wisely, and education must be a priority. Sandness kids would have to travel 60 miles a day on roads not getting gritted because of budget cuts. There needs to be joined up thinking.

19:31 Elaina Leach, Ollaberry – it seems the small schools are always picked on.

Laurence Odie, Yell – we are thinking too much about money and not enough about communities. In Cullivoe when thye didn’t close the school pupil numbers rose, houses were built, there was a tremendous feel good factor. When Burravoe was saved one family wanted to move in, but now that is up in the air again.

If you don’t keep rural schools you are going to have to build a lot more houses in the central belt.

19:29 Florence Grains, SIC councillor, wishes they had come out west with the commission.

Sutherland – we are visiting small schools all over Scotland, some with two or three pupils, some 60 miles from nearest town plus 17 miles on single track road. We are trying to spread ourselves around as widely as possible.

19:27 Hilary Baird, Aith – curriculum for excellence works very well.

John Fraser – if we maintain the school estate as it is, other services we have will be affected. I would suggest not to close some of our smaller schools will have a detrimental effect on wider Shetland. Don’t be parochial. We have care homes and public services as a whole to think about. 

19:25 Alan Macdonald, North Roe community councillor – the consultation document was full of inaccuracies, it felt like no one was listening to us. Shouldn’t this be looked at independently?

19:23 Woman says Lerwick will have to move to composite classes as part of the changes being proposed.

Rodger says he has no information about composite classes, but across Scotland many local authorities are looking at recompositing every year to get the most efficiencies, but he is not aware of any formal research on this.

Sutherland says the majority have not opposed composite classes, and some who initially had concerns changed their view after the experience.

Woman says the changes can affect children’s confidence.

Hilary Baird from Dunrossness says composite classes have affected children there.

19:19 Elaina Leach: It’s not fair to insist on consulting young children like my son in primary four again and again about the future of their school, just because the council says it has to. I won’t let him do it again.

Glenn Rodger, director of education for Scottish Borders Council is part of the commission. He says that is part of the process and he says that complaint has been heard elsewhere.

19:16 Question: does commission recognise schools were closed illegally because it was not done on educational grounds.

Sutherland: It’s not for us to answer questions like that. We have been tasked to review the 2010 Act and look at how education can offer children the best chances, look at best practice, the links between rural education and the preservation of rural communities and how those links can be strengthened. Also we will look at funding issues.

Tonight we want to hear about the difficulties you are having.

19:14 Why did you close schools, the convener asks. Was it to save £3m

CM: We were looking at how we could save money, clsing Scalloway JHS saved £700,000 but also increased educational benefits for those children.

19:12 Caroline Miller, SIC councillor Lerwick North, vice chair education and families committee:

“We have a commitment to save £3m from education budget for next two years. At the moment before the moratorium came into force we decided to close schools in Scalloway and Uyeasound. Olnafirth is on hold because of the moratorium broghht about by the creation of the Commission on Rural Education.

“As a Lerwick councillor there is significant concern, people here feel their children are being disadvantaged.

“There are two things we can do to save money – rationalise the school estate and cut back on courses or the council can change its policy, which is unlikely.

“We have done deep cleaning, janitorial services, everything we can to save money and that’s where we are.”

19:07 The commission has 15 members and hopes to submit a report in August. It has received 400 plus written responses from throughout Scotland.

The commission is going round all the councils with 50 per cent rural schools in their area.

They have been meeting pupils, parents & teachers; and held sessions with organisations like EIS and the Children’s Commissioner.

“We are taking all the information and really putting it into the mix. We rely on what local people tell us is happening in their council area. Much of what we have been hearing has certain common themes, but what different localities tell us is important.

“We are very conscious Shetland has had certain difficulties and parents are very concerned. So we want to hear what you have to tell us.” 

19:04 More than 70 people from all over Shetland have turned up for the meeting, which is now being introduced by its convener Sheriff David Sutherland, a sheriff from the Highlands. 

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