AROUND 150 people packed into Aith public hall on Monday night for a hastily arranged public meeting about proposals to close the local junior high school.
Parents organised the event after hearing last Thursday that Shetland Islands Council’s families and education committee would be debating plans to close all bar one of Shetland’s unique junior high schools by 2016 on Wednesday morning.
Under the new Blueprint for Education, Aith junior high would be first on the hit list as the council strives to slash its education budget by 15 per cent (£6 million) over the next two years to salvage its rapidly depleting reserves.
Its 98 pupils would go to Lerwick’s deteriorating Anderson High School in the wake of the 116 from Scalloway junior high, which the council closed last year in the face of a huge public outcry.
Then in February councillors were told they would have to go further if the council was to avoid bankruptcy within five years and they decided to revisit plans to shake up the local school estate.
Education committee chair Vaila Wishart was one of four councillors – Allison Duncan, Frank Robertson and Theo Smith came too – who faced angry and frightened parents on Monday night.
Wishart says that Shetland simply can no longer afford its 40 year old network of junior high schools, which make educating 11 to 15 year olds 25 per cent more expensive in Shetland than in the other Scottish islands – £12,000 per pupil compared to £9,000.
“There are only two secondary schools in Orkney at Stromness and Kirkwall and that’s how it used to be in Shetland until 40 years ago,” she said.
“But it’s unsustainable. We can’t keep going with this because otherwise we won’t have any money in five years.”
She acknowledged the high standard of education in Shetland’s junior highs and how much they are valued in the communities they serve, but said children would be offered a broader choice of subjects if all secondary education took place in Lerwick or Brae.
“If I thought their education as going to be disadvantaged I would not be suggesting this, but it comes down to money in the end,” she said.
But local people on Monday night warned of the devastating impact closing the Aith secondary would have, raising the spectre of children as young as 11 spending more than two hours on a bus every day and families voting with their feet and moving closer to Lerwick.
Aith parent council chairman Jeremy Sansom said the organisers were glad the meeting was civilised and thanked the councillors, especially Wishart, for making the effort to attend.
People spoke passionately about their fears and frustrations with the local authority they feel has got them into this mess in the first place by failing to think far enough ahead and spending money too freely.
Sansom says the council needs to stay its hand and think things through more carefully before taking such a drastic step as closing its junior high school network.
“We don’t want to demonise the education department and you can’t just sweep the council’s financial difficulties under the carpet, but this just seems to be somewhat draconian if you live in the rural areas of Shetland,” Sansom said.
“Some say this system of junior high schools is a luxury we can no longer afford, others would argue it’s a very successful way of educating our children and we shouldn’t go into a blind panic because the budget is a bit tight.
“Our main concern is the impact that this will have on rural life in Shetland if things become increasingly centralised in Lerwick and communities become devitalised.
“What I want to see is a much clearer vision of the future. We have a Blueprint for Education, but it seems to be negative, it’s all about closures. Give us something that’s saying it will be good for my children.
“We don’t just want a reprieve, we want a sustainable way forward that doesn’t involve dismantling something which I understand is the envy of many areas of Scotland.”
He said the overwhelming consensus voiced at Monday’s meeting was that the proposals are “just wrong” and alternatives to closure should be investigated.
He suggested Shetland Charitable Trust could be used to tide the schools over in the short term until the finances looked healthier.
Some believe plans for the Viking Energy wind farm which is promising to deliver £20 million a year into the trust’s coffers could allow the islands to maintain the junior highs, though in Aith the wind farm is particularly unpopular.
However this year’s intake of councillors have been given the clear message from new financial chief James Gray that the financial outlook is extremely bleak without such measures.
Wishart said she believes the council which has backed down five times over the past 12 years in the face of community opposition to close rural schools is now realising there is little choice.
“It does come down to money in the end,” she admits. “Things have been badly handled and the council has set up systems that we can’t afford to continue with.
“I think members are finally understanding just how dire the financial situation is and if they fail to do it this time we might as well throw up our hands and go home.
“If we don’t do it in a planned fashion what will happen in five years time is there will be mass compulsory redundancies. It’s awful.
“If they don’t hold their nerve and history will tell you that they have not in the past, then as soon as people start to scream and shout they usually fold quite quickly. We will just have to see if this council is any different.”