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Letters / Proposals entirely financially driven

Statement from Sandwick Junior High School Parent Council in response to proposed secondary school closure

Following a series of public meetings, Sandwick Junior High School Parent Council wish to set out our response to the proposed closure of our secondary school. Detailed below are our concerns relating to the proposal as well as some alternative suggestions that we would like to be explored.

Gauging Public Opinion

A number of public meetings have been held in recent months, at which parents have had the opportunity to ask questions and highlight concerns. This began with our Annual General Meeting on 5th September, at which South Mainland Councillors George Smith and Billy Fox were in attendance. A wider public meeting was held on 17th September, at which Shetland Islands Council’s Head of Finance, James Gray, was in attendance to present the financial backdrop to the proposals and the two South Mainland councillors were again in attendance. Helen Budge, Director of Children’s Services, was invited to attend a further public meeting on 4th October. Councillor George Smith was also in attendance.

In addition, a dedicated Parent Council page has been set up on the social networking site Facebook, in order to improve opportunities for parents to channel questions and concerns through the parent council. Whilst this is a closed group access requiring administrator approval), it is checked regularly for more parents requesting to become members. Membership is currently at approximately 50 members.Parents’ Concerns

Parents’ concern

There is evident opposition in the community to the proposed closure, with parents’ concerns focussing on travel times, capacity, choices, impact on health and community and the proposed timescale for consultation.

Parents have expressed significant concerns relating to travel time if our children were to face a daily bus journey to and from Lerwick. We are somewhat reassured by the forthcoming health impact assessment to be conducted by NHS Shetland and are keen to see the outcomes of their report. We would, however, question why this assessment was not commissioned earlier in the process, before closure proposals were made and a vote taken by the council. In the meantime, our concerns remain in relation to the physical and educational impact of up to two hours per day on a busjourney, as well as equality of access to after school activities for children whose families cannot make alternative travel arrangements.

Concerns have also been expressed about the capacity for Anderson High School to take in more students. Whilst we do not dispute that on paper this is feasible, in reality we are already aware of existing issues relating to social areas and corridor bottlenecks. Class sizes will also inevitably increase, which is a concern for some parents who have chosen to educate their children in Sandwick because of access to smaller class sizes.

Whilst we have no concerns about the general quality of education available to our children through the Anderson High School, one of the biggest concerns expressed by parents has been what would happen to children who either do not want to go to a large secondary school in Lerwick, or who encountered problems at school in Lerwick and were no longer able to attend. The ‘choices’ would appear to be limited to travelling to Brae or further, moving home, or homeschooling, none of which are realistic or appropriate alternatives for most families. In addition, many incoming families chose to live in the South Mainland because of the access to secondary education in their home community.

We can see no evidence that the potential impact on communities in the South Mainland has been fully assessed to date. Parents and members of the community have expressed concerns about the impact on local businesses, local employment, household incomes, standards of living, house prices, population growth and the overall potential or reducing the fiscal capacity of the South Mainland and the possibility that these costs disproportionately impact poor and minority communities. We therefore request that a full socio-economic study be commissioned by Shetland Islands Council at the earliest opportunity.

Parents have significant concerns about the impact on the existing school as the closures progress, particularly given that closure is not scheduled until 2016. Such a long period of uncertainty is expected to have a serious impact on all stakeholders, e.g. teachers becoming de-motivated, problems with recruitment and retention, feelings of anxiety, increased placing requests to Lerwick and a poorer quality of education for children remaining in Sandwick. By making the proposal this early, the council appear to have sown a seed of doubt in the minds of parents whose children’s education faces potential disruption and the school may risk closing by default.

Alternative Options

We have concerns that Shetland Islands Council have to date not demonstrated due regard for viable alternatives, the impact on the community and the effect of travelling arrangements before deciding to propose and consult on the schoolclosure, as they are required to do. We understand that, by law, a decision to consult on a closure proposal cannot be made until the local authority has explored all possible alternatives and fully assessed the likely implications of closure.

We would like reassurance that all realistic alternatives will now be fully assessed before closures progress any further.

The ‘across the board’ approach to allocating savings seems inappropriate for a public service provider. We would suggest that a higher proportion of savings should be sought in non-core and support services to minimise the impact on service users and their wider communities.

The most realistic alternative we would like to see a more detailed assessment of is the ‘hub and spoke’ model, whereby the junior high school model could be maintained, but with a more flexible and joined up approach to delivering education in Shetland by means of a shared management structure and the sharing of staff and other resources.

The use of digital technology has been raised and questioned by several parents and councillors alike as an alternative long-term cost saving measure. Equally several parents have expressed the opinion that digital technology can never be a substitute for the benefits of learning amongst the physical presence of a teacher and classmates, the focus being on inspiring, talented and enthusiastic teachers, not on whiteboards and video links. Ideas regarding digital technology lack detail at present. Clarification is needed if we are to understand any educational cost or benefit. This needs to be more fully assessed.

It is also felt that the Shetland College needs to be factored into plans for the future of education in Shetland, recognising that the college has a role in the delivery of the Curriculum for Excellence and the secondary phase of education. There would appear to be scope for improvements in communication and working relationships between the college and other secondary schools in Shetland, which could in turn lead to efficiencies.

We are aware of savings made in Orkney by reducing the number of Quality Improvement Officers. Whilst we recognise this in itself will not cover the full extent of the savings needed, we would like to see the option more fully explored.

Councillors and parents have asked previously whether the existing Junior High Schools could replace the need for a secondary school in Lerwick, by transporting children out of the centre. Whilst we feel the logic of this approach is questionable, we feel it should be included in the alternatives to be more fully appraised.We were encouraged to hear from Councillor George Smith that the Council are still to make decisions on spending priorities and that the £3.5 million to be cut from the education budget is not set in stone. However, we do recognise that cuts will still be a necessity and that the status quo is not a realistic alternative to the need for significant budget driven changes, including the proposal to close several secondary departments across Shetland.

Consultation Timescale

We are by no means accepting the proposal to close and still have significant concerns about the decision making process and the potential detrimental impact on our children and the wider community.

However, we feel the proposal to consult formally in 2015 puts parents, children, teachers and staff at the school in an impossible and untenable position, as highlighted above. We therefore request that the consultation be brought forward to allow equality of opportunity to teachers and staff in terms of redeployment; minimise the ongoing detrimental impact of this decision on children’s education; and reduces the uncertainty faced by everyone.

We fully expect the consultation to be robust, coherent, open and transparent, and above all to command the trust and confidence of the public.

Conclusions and Next Steps

We recognise the proven skills and innovative thinking amongst the teachers and leaders within Sandwick Junior High School, as well as the established quality, attainment, ethos and sense of community that exists because of our school. We acknowledge that Shetland Islands Council will achieve budgetary savings by eliminating this model, but we are not confident that this will be of educational benefit to our children.

The Scottish Government state that the need for school closures can be prompted by changing population patterns and the need to provide suitable school buildings for pupils and teachers. We have not seen evidence to suggest that these are reasons prompting the proposed closure of Sandwick Junior High School, other than to justify the building of a new Anderson High School, which we have been repeatedly assured is not the case. The proposals appear to be entirely financially driven.

We await the publication of the forthcoming report from the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education, which will explore both how the delivery of rural education can maximise the attainment and life chances of young people in rural areas, and the link between rural education and rural communities. The Commissionwill also make recommendations on the delivery of all aspects of education in rural areas.

In the meantime we ask that the council considers the alternatives set out in this document and commission suitable studies to fully assess the impact of their proposals on our children and communities. We also ask that consideration be given to our request to bring forward the timescales for consultation.

At our recent public meeting, Helen Budge answered all questions put to her and offered to attend more such meetings in the coming years and listen to the views of parents and answer questions. We anticipate it will take some time for the council to respond to our concerns and for our requests to be considered. However, once more information is available for discussion, as a Parent Council we will take Mrs Budge up on this offer and facilitate further such meetings periodically to allow parents further opportunity to hear the arguments and express their own views to Councillors and the Education Department.

Sandwick Junior High School Parent Council.