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News / SIC insists consultation will be genuine

West side parents hand in a 1,048 signature petition to local member Theo Smith and council leader Gary Robinson ahead of Thursday's meeting. Pic. Shetland News

SHETLAND Islands Council voted through plans to consult on closing nine local schools on Thursday, throwing out a request for a moratorium by just two votes.

A debate lasting more than three hours involving two councillors phoning in from overseas ended with the SIC agreeing to review the future of the islands’ unique junior high school system that teaches 11 to 15 year olds, along with five single teacher primaries.

However the council has also agreed to examine alternatives to closure, including the prospects of using new technology to offer distance learning in remote schools.

More than 50 parents, grandparents and children attended the meeting after the west mainland community staged a protest with placards and handed in a petition with more than 1,000 signatures gathered in 48 hours opposing closure of Aith junior high.

Aith, with 120 pupils, and three pupil Skerries secondary department will be consulted on next year along with Olnafirth primary.

The following year the council will examine closing primary schools in Burravoe, North Roe and Urafirth, along with its nursery.

Finally in 2015 consultation will begin on closing Sandness primary and, if work has begun on building a new Anderson High School in Lerwick, on the secondaries in Sandwick and Whalsay.

The SIC’s education department is pursuing savings of more than £3 million to help towards the overall target of £30 million over the next two years, equating to £1,000 per pupil per year.

Currently the council is eating into its oil-funded reserves to the tune of £36 million a year, at which rate they will run out by 2017.

However the consultation was only agreed by 12 votes to 10, with a significant number of councillors calling for more work to go into designing a high-tech education service that could set an example nationally and even globally.

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Children’s services director Helen Budge said after the meeting that consultation would not begin until January.

Meantime her staff will examine suggestions made on Thursday to retain junior high schools in a “hub and spoke” model that could save up to £2.9 million a year; using Shetland’s new fibre optic cable to teach via videolink, and not sending children to Lerwick or Brae until they are 14.

Education and families chairwoman Vaila Wishart insisted the consultation was a genuine attempt to provide a Shetland-wide model schooling for the 21st century.

“We have to think about the overall picture and what’s best for Shetland as a whole. This is a very, very small community and I would hate to see us all breaking down into little enclaves all trying to fight their own corner. I am sure we can come up with ideas that will fit the whole bill,” she said.

However Aith parent council chairman Jeremy Sansom said his community had little confidence in the consultation process.

“To be honest we really don’t believe that it will deliver the goods. We feel it’s a foregone conclusion,” he said.

“There are other ways of doing things, but I don’t have the confidence that this consultation process will bring those to the fore.”

Councillor Billy Fox tried to arrest the process by calling for a moratorium, saying that would send a message of encouragement to worried communities, but lost the vote.

“There is absolutely no need for this to be ratified at this moment and a moratorium would have given us a bit more time to put the meat on the bones of what we can do with digital technology and to prioritise where the council spends its money,” he said.

A government decision on funding for a new Anderson High School in Lerwick is expected next week.

Councillors who supported the consultation were: Malcom Bell, Alastair Cooper, Allison Duncan, Drew Ratter, Gary Robinson, David Sandison, Cecil Smith, George Smith, Amanda Westlake, Jonathan Wills, Allan Wishart and Vaila Wishart.

Opposing were: Mark Burgess, Peter Campbell, Gary Cleaver, Steven Coutts, Billy Fox, Robert Henderson, Andrea Manson, Frank Robertson, Theo Smith and Michael Stout.

Steven Coutts lost a further amendment to exclude Whalsay junior high school from the consultation.

The only support he received was from: Gary Cleaver, Billy Fox, Robert Henderson, Andrea Manson, Theo Smith and Michael Stout. Everyone else voted against.

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