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SIC - Free Tyre Check - 22 Nov 2019

Live: Shetland school closure debate

SIC education and families committee live update of school closures debate:

1.15pm – The debate is over and in case you were wondering what has been decided:

The recommendations to start consulting on the closure of junior high schools and single teacher primary schools across Shetland have been passed by the SIC’s education and families committee, except that Baltasound junior high school has been taken off the hit list.

The schools earmarked for consultation are the junior highs in Aith, Sandwick, Whalsay and Skerries, along with primaries in Sandness, Olnafirth, North Roe, Urafirth and Burravoe.

Committee vice chairman George Smith managed to add that if any savings are identified elsewhere they should be brought forward to the committee “in the first instance”.

Gary Cleaver’s attempt to have the consultation thrown out and the whole issue of education be looked at again was defeated by a single vote.

These recommendations will now go to full council on 20 September, where we can expect another full scale debate. Before then no doubt communities will be working hard on their councillors to change their minds.

12:31pm – Sandison moves amendment that Baltasound is removed from plan. Cleaver seconds.

Sandison: 5
Wishart: 4

Baltasound is out of the plan.

12:31pm – Wishart says we could probably come up with some solutions, but this is the first step in a long process. Each proposal will be scrutinised closely, and if we can find other ways of proceeding they will also be looked at. We need to look five years and beyond and cut our cloth according to our purse.

Cleaver: 4 votes
Wishart: 5 votes

12:29pm – Cleaver comes up with an amendment saying they should drop the consultation because of its impact on children travelling, and on rural communities losing their children to hostels, and calls for the council to prioritise its aspirations. Peter Campbell seconds.

Cleaver says you only get answers to the questions you ask. We want to develop and broaden education for this century, and this proposal runs until 2016 which gives us time to develop a model which will be future proof and takes into account unexpected cost increases like fuel. Instead of dismantling the JHS model, it should be refined, consider moving teachers instead of bairns, and look at how technology can help.

12:24pm – Martin Tregonning of the Shetland Churches Council speaks up in support of the savings, even though they will affect his family directly. He talks of other ares of Scotland where cuts are being made all the time. He says we are in danger of taking away from schools what they need to provide a good education.

We are being asked to make “the least worst decision”. This is about education right across Shetland, the consultation is more than just lip service and more detail will be gone into.

One of the worst side effects of all the consultations is they have created a sense of uncertainty, and he likes this plan because it is forward looking and seeks sustainable. Nothing is worse than the constant drip, drip, drip of cuts. It will bring about certainty so staff can concentrate on delivering education.

12:19pm – Wishart takes the mic. She says the education budget will have to be cut. Cutting £1,000 per pupil would damage education, spreading resources too thinly is not helpful. Piecemeal cuts without forward planning will not provide children with the best opportunities, planning ahead will.

If the government provides the money a new AHS could be built within the lifetime of this council. She commends the report and says the proposals still provide a lot of room for manouevre.

George Smith says he does not want to see education standards and Shetland’s culture suffer, but money has to be saved. The reality is that we have a plan and it is “just a plan”.

The real issue is this council’s ability to prioritise and we must, before settling on any plan, to examine its priorities thoroughly. Education, care for the most vulnerable and transport must be high on that list. We have to abandon any thoughts of across the board cuts and show leadership to the people of Shetland.

Smith asks Wishart to add to her motion backing the recommendations that if any more information comes forward about how money could be saved it will be brought immediately to the education and families committee. Wishart agrees.

12:10pm – Coutts says he experienced travelling on a bus and two ferries to get to school in Brae and he would not want to put any child through that. He recognises there are savings to be made, but fibre optic technology could provide a lot of the answers. We also need to get control of discretionary spending, he says.

12:07pm – Sandison says he was on the last council (though its dying days) and opposed Scalloway school’s closure; he won’t oppose these recommendations, but he wants to look at available technologies to see how they could be applied in Shetland and whether they could offer alternatives.

Regarding Scalloway’s closure there are issues, eg travelling from Burra, but he has first hand experience of kids that have transferred. “They are doing OK. They are not disadvantaged, if anything their education has been enhanced. Standards are high in Shetland.”

However there is still “meat on the bone” to remove before going down the road of school closures, and there needs to be more opportunities to set priorities for the council as a whole. In my view education will be one of the top prioritis, but we can’t carry on spending what we do on it and decisions will have to be made.

One or two proposals I can’t agree with. I agree with Campbell’s philosophy on the damage to peripheries and will have an amendment to make.

12:01pm – Campbell rejects Wills and Robinson’s comments. The reason the council’s financial problems do not go away is because the council is unable to set priorities, and by setting priorities the council could offer educational opportunities  for everyone. “We are being driven down Review Route 52 by the last council, by the get out clauses of a dying council.”

Robinson asks how long councillors will be allowed to speak. Campbell continues, saying if Lerwick North member Michael Stout was here he would push the council to use more technology. Education secretary Mike Russell was clear schools would be closed for educational reasons only, he adds.

11:56am – Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills says Bill Smith was a visionary, but times have changed. This report is well researched and voting against it would be a vote of no confidence in SIC staff. Shetland does well by its rural areas, he adds.

The best education for all has to be affordable. “The old council spent 57% of our reserves and the remaining 43% is earning one quarter of what it should earn. That’s why we have a financial crisis and we have to deal with it. We can’t print money or tax the rich, we must live with this.”

I know how good the schools and staff are, but we’re not sending them to a prison camp, we are offering them a better education. I had to travel to school and spent the time reading books, he says.

We’re not undermining education, will still have a service the envy of the rest of Scotland. “We have to get real about this.” We can have technology if we can find £18 million, but you still need the human interaction of the classroom and playground. It is time to implement these changes. The consultation is not a charade, it is real and we will listen. Please stop procrastinating, because if you don’t pupils all over Shetland will have a worse education and we will see standards go back 20 years, if not to before Bill Smith became a councillor.

11:47am – Duncan says closing the primary schools in the south mainland 41 years ago was the best thing that could hve happened to them. Pupils have a better education and make more friends. He has a grandson who gets up at 7.15am and travels more than 20 miles to school, and he prefers the AHS to Sandwick. “I have no concerns about travel times. We have chidren travelling from Maywick who travel six and a half miles along a B road and no one has complained to me about it.”

The last school to close in our community was Quarff, “People complained. It happened, a few days later everything went quiet. I have spoken to parents and pupils and they say it’s the best thing that ever happened to them.”

Fair Isle children had to come out at 12 years old and it’s not done them any harm.

11: 37am – Fox agrees with everything Campbell and Cleaver have said, especially about Bill Smith. This is about education and he can’t countenance children travelling these long distances. Shetland’s education is the envy of Scotland, he says.

We need to be setting our priorities and are finally managing to have a seminar about how to prioritise our spending after four months. There is an unacceptable level of discretionary spend. We can stop spending on those things and later bring them back, but if we close schools we can never resurrect them. If we can’t find £3.25 million to keep our schools open we are doing a very poor job.

As a parent I would never put my child out for an hour and half’s journey on a winter morning and I wouldn’t ask any other parent to do so.

11.35am – Cleaver says he already has experience of families leaving Shetland and not moving to Lerwick when a school closes. He agrees with everything Campbell says, but wants to take it further.

We can’t say a superschool will provide a better education, which has not been built yet. We can’t say we have this mythical school that lives in a land far way we haven’t even dug a hole in yet, but we are basing our plans on this. I am fed up of this talk of consultation.

Communities say consultation is meaningless to them, it is a death sentence as far as they are concerned and we can’t afford to lose these people.

11:30am – Council leader Gary Robinson says he doesn’t like what the council is being asked to do, but the times of affluence are over. If savings are not made in education, then social services and ferries would be have to be cut by half. Members have always baulked in the past, but the problem has not gone away. To maintain high education standards there is no alternative to closing schools.

The big cost in education isn’t the buildings, it’s the staff (86% of the cost). This is not about town versus country, it’s about delivering the best education that we can. Not doing this would mean cutting £1,000 for every child’s education.

“Today’s decision will not close any schools, but it will ensure that if we get to the point of doing so we will have gone through the proper process and that’s why I support the recommendations.”

11:25am – The debate has begun (at last) with Campbell saying how sad that during the week that he attended the funeral of Bill Smith, who was responsible for standing up to the Scottish education department and establishing junior high schools in Shetland the councilo was debating closing those schools. “We are in danger of destroying rural communities, if you attack the periphery the population is inclined to move into the centre.”

We argue with ministers about the importance of peripheral areas, but today we are being asked to be hypocrites and fail to recognise the significance of our own peripheral communities. We are encouraging parents to drift into the central mainland of Shetland – he knows this from personal experience when his school on the Outer Hebrides closed 60 years ago. We will be driving people out of remote communities, creating more housing problems in the central area.

This exercise needs to be looked at in terms of impact on the whole council. Skerries closure was stopped because it would have cost the council more as a whole. The budget can be controlled not by disadvantaging pupils in remote areas, but by studying what this council believes its priorities are for Shetland. It’s a council-wide issue.

11:20am – Coutts says he hopes the consultation will include the impact on families of having children going to stay in the hostel. Budge says it is important families are taken into consideration.

11:15am – Duncan: why are we not considering saving £619,000 by closing Hamnavoe, Tingwall and Whiteness and putting them into Scalloway. Budge: this is about looking at one teacher schools, which are not as financially and educationally viable as some of our bigger schools.

Campbell: on wrap-around childcare, would a closed school be used for providing this childcare and if so, would there be any savings? Budge says the schools could be the focus of attempts to provide childcare.

Campbell: Why has Bressay not been included? Budge: Secondary closures are seen as more acceptable than primary closures.

11:10am – Cleaver is thrown by the failure to factor in the cost of maintaining empty buildings. Budge says doing so would give the minister an opportunity to call in any closure, as it would predetermine the closure going ahead. Giving the example of Uyeasound, a decision has now been made to sell that building, but could not have been at the time of closure. “We need to be careful not to pre-assume a future use for the building,” she says.

A feasibility study into the future use of Scalloway secondary department is being prepared, Budge adds.

Cleaver asks again if a contingency is made into what happens if the buildings are not sold. Gray says the buildings have been viewed as an ongoing cost to the council.

11:05am – Campbell asks if rates are still paid on Scalloway school. They are, he is told, and the same would apply on other schools that were closed. If they were boarded up they would not have to pay.

Campbell again: Unst parents are not being given an option of going to AHS. Budge says research shows people in communities find it hard to make a decision which school they want their child to go to and they look for direction from the council. She cites North Roe as an example of this, but says it will be looked at in more detail during the consultation.

Campbell: in the case of Mid Yell, “when is a new build not a new build?” “That’s a good question,” Budge says, though can’t really answer.

Shetland North member Andrea Manson asks why secondary education costs so much more than in Orkney and the Western Isles. Budge says they have fewer schools that have more pupils in them. One secondary here has 3 pupils, one has 23.

Manson says some of the schools proposed for closure are in the top five for Scotland academically, and the AHS is not, so this might be of concern to parents. Budge stresses again this about the standard of education for ALL pupils in Shetland, so closing Uyeasound for example (which had the best inspection report in Scotland) was justified if as benefited the whole of the islands’ children.

Manson: why not look at primaries that have 10 to 15m travelling time, such as Tingwall and Whiteness, as opposed to children in West Burrafirth. Voe is fair enough as many children already go to Brae and it’s just five minutes – “less if you speed”. “I don’t think we are looking at this rationally enough”.

Budge: We want to organise education in establishments that are “viable” financially and educationally. Single teacher schools do not offer the best opportunities and those are the ones that the SIC is looking at.

10:55am – Sandison asks about what training has been done with new technology to create a “virtual learning environment”. Budge says video conferencing facilities at AHS are very good, but the hardware has not been put in the remote isles to provide a reliable service and the quality of broadband links has not been good enough. However they are looking at it and it does appear that by the time these facilities will be needed they will be there, but this will not be for some time. 

Sandison again: Have any costings been done on how this much might cost? Budge: About £18m to get fibre optic links to all the islands.

10:50am – Theo Smith says council policy is that there should be no redundancies. Has money been factored in for redundancy payments? Budge responds, saying they have looked at Scalloway as an example and looked at who may ask for retirement, voluntary severance and temporary posts. Taking everything into account, including turnover of staff, “we are confident we will find positions for teaching and support staff over the three years”.

10.47am – Cleaver asks what the council will do over the next 3-5 years that these savings will take to achieve. “What is the strategy to cover this shortfall?” he asks. Gray says there is a short to medium financial planning proposal being published on the SIC website today. The plan sets the reserve floor at £125m, which takes into account the shortfall Cleaver is raising.

10:40am – Shetland Central member David Sandison is now getting into fine detail about how the figures were worked out. He is grateful for all the work staff have done on producing the more detailed figures. He says the nursery costs look horrendous – £31,000 per child.

Lerwick South member and former teacher Peter Campbell is concerned about hostel places, saying that the Whalsay figure of 29 pupils being accommodated in Lerwick is wrong as it does not include the P4 and P5 pupils. Budge defends the figures.

10:35 – North Isles member Steven Coutts asks if the transport timetables were a desktop exercise. Craigie confirms they were. Coutts goes on to question the 9% “non-attributable costs” in the budget. Budge explains it is things like non-SIC pre-school facilities, instrument instruction, out of school costs. Coutts asks for more details, Budge agrees to provide them.

Shetland South member Billy Fox raises concerns about travel times having a detrimental effect on children. He is disappointed it’s a desktop exercise, as he asked for a practical example at the last meeting. He says parents are not managing to travel within these times when they have tested them out.

He asks whether the Orkney and Western Isles high schools also included halls of residence. Budge says the Nicolson Instutute in the Western Isles did, which was completed in 34 months.

10:30 – Shetland South member Allison Duncan asks how much council tax would have to go up to meet the savings. Gray says council tax income is £8.5m so to meet these savings there would need to be a 40% increase.

Duncan follows up with a question about what the impact would be on schools if savings were not made. Budge says it would be an additional £1,000 per pupil that would have to be removed from each schools budget.

10.25am – Shetland West member Theo Smith says that if transport providers have not been consulted the figures must be completely out of date. He questions whether the cost of feeder services has been factored in, saying that they will need more than one run per morning. Craigie says figures on double runs are still ongoing and that sort of detail must be added. “We continue to work on this and llisten to points raised and will go over the figures again.”

10:23am – North Isles member Gary Cleaver starts the questions, asking if the actual transport providers have been consulted. Executive transport manager Michael Craigie says they are entirely confident with the figures, and that they have built in an allowance for figures they are not sure of. The figures will be worked up in more detail when detailed options come through.

10:21am – Gray says it has taken two full time professioanl accountants a week each of their time to come up with more detailed savings. They have shown the savings are greater because the original figures were “prudent”, they originally underestimated the savings because they do want to “oversell” what can be achieved

“I am absolutely confident in the figure we have to date. We have not just stuck our finger in the air, we have gone through this line by line. This is detailed work done with detailed numbers.”

10:20am – Director of finance James Gray puts the report in its financial context, reminding councillors the SIC is liviing beyond its means, spending £36m more than it has each year, its reserves have halved in the last 12 years and will run out by 2016/17 unless savings are made.

The finance department has worked with education and transport to examine savings. The figures can’t be 100 per cent accurate for three or four years ahead due to unforeseeable changes in wages and energy costs etc, but the figures are accurate in today’s terms.

There has been some “unfortunate” discussion of these figures, he describes as “squabbling”. As chartered accountants he and his staff can do professional costs. He had heard AHS pupils cost £6,000 each to educate and Aith pupils cost £10,000, but extrapolating those figures is not how finance staff works. People need to take into account fixed costs like the cost of the building.

The average cost per pupil at AHS would go down from almost £6,600 to around £6,100 if the closures went ahead. Multiply that by 1,000 pupils that comes to around £500,000.

10:10 – The director of children’s services Helen Budge presents the report saying its sets out the best education for all pupils in Shetland allowing the highest standards of teaching in modern well equipped buildings that is financialy sustainable.

“We will improve educational benefits for ALL students,” she says.

Reviews of the school estate go back 11 years, she says. The 2001 best value report was followed by a number of reviews that all concluded there was a need for change, however no changes were realised. 2007 saw the start of the Blueprint of Education process, with four consultation exercises since 2008 which show there is still a need for change. To maintain education, £3.29m savings can only be made by closing five junior high schools and five primaries.

She admits there are two typo mistakes in the report. which she apologise for. One relates to the Uyeasound closure savings and one about picking up children at Hermaness.

10am – Chair Vaila Wishart pays tribute to former education chairman Bill Smith who died last week, saying he was “a man of integrity who had a huge influence on our young people”.

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