COMMUNITIES across Shetland are coming out in force to defend secondary education in its current form when it comes up for debate on Wednesday morning.
Buses have been hired from the islands of Unst, Yell and Whalsay as well as the west mainland to transport angry parents to Lerwick Town Hall for a crunch meeting of Shetland Islands Council’s education and families committee.
Since Saturday more than 1,500 signatures have been collected from the islands alone opposing proposals to force 14 year olds to be taught in Lerwick and stay in a hostel all week.
Meetings took place throughout the affected communities on Monday, with 200 people turning out in Yell where they shared their fears about the latest council proposals, drawn up by education consultant Don Ledingham.
The council is struggling to cut its £40 million children’s services budget – the biggest per pupil in Scotland – by £3.25 million.
Ledingham’s proposals to close Aith and Sandwick junior high schools and reduce Yell, Unst and Whalsay to S1 and S2 will still leave a further £1 million to be found.
Teachers union EIS has described the plans as “a complete devastation” that will undermine education in the isles.
However after more than a decade of attempts to cut spending on schools, local teachers have stressed that councillors must end the uncertainty surrounding education in the isles.
Committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart said it would be irresponsible for councillors to shy away from making a decision n the way forward on Wednesday.
Parent councils in the affected communities have reacted with unified outrage, though each has different concerns:
Mid Yell junior high school parent council chairman John Irvine said he had never witnessed such strong feeling about an issue affecting the isle following Monday night’s meeting.
“I have never seen such a magnitude of feeling, it is very humbling,” he said.
He said parents were very unhappy about children staying in the Lerwick hostel all week and S1 and S2 children would receive an unequal experience compared to their peers elsewhere.
Yell folk are also annoyed a brand new school built to accommodate children up to S4 would be underused.
Symbister junior high parent council chairman Peter Gaines said the community was insistent that it should retain children up to S4 on the isles, despite previous suggestions they would be happy to see S3 as the upper limit.
He added that a meeting last week with Ledingham to discuss the proposals had been “a complete waste of time”, because the consultant did not have enough time.
The community will send at least 16 people to Wednesday’s meeting, but will decide on how to respond until after a decision has been taken.
Catriona Waddington, chair of the Baltasound parent council, said there was a “sense of despair and bewilderment” that after six years of discussing a Blueprint for Education in Shetland, the council still did not have “a document we have any faith in”.
She said: “There is real fury that the cost of hostel accommodation and transport are being wildly underestimated.”
At a meeting on Monday night, she said, people were “shaking their heads” that the council was about to break a promise that primary children from Uyeasound could complete their education at Baltasound after their school closed last year.
“There was an undertaking in writing to the Scottish government and it seems morally and politically bankrupt to ignore that position,” she said.
Parents on Shetland’s west side have been arguing long and hard that their children will be worse off educationally and healthwise if they have to travel up to an hour or longer to Lerwick to and from school every day.
This week Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said any decision to close Aith junior high would likely be called in by education secretary Michael Russell on the travel times alone.
Parent Jane Haswell said the council’s suggestions about how those travel times could be reduced had not been safety audited, with children facing walking on the verge of single track roads to catch a bus.
She said there was a “wonderful sense of unity” amongst parents on the west mainland and in other affected communities who are determined to fight the proposals, which they feel were the result of “a bogus consultation”.
There appears to be less unanimity in the south mainland about the way forward, with some voicing a resignation that changes will come.
However a meeting on Monday night witnessed a rallying of passionate opposition to the council’s proposals.
Parent council chairwoman Jane Maxwell said: “There are mixed feelings, but there is a definite disquiet and displeasure and dissatisfaction with the Ledingham report.”
Local secretary Steve Davidson said teachers were particularly concerned about “the effect protracted indecision is having on pupil and teacher morale, never mind the potential it has to divide communities”.
At a time of spending cuts, shortages of materials and the challenge of introducing Curriculum for Excellence, schools needed the support of an education service that was not constantly preparing reports about the future,” he said.
Regional officer Karen Barclay arrived in the isles this week to tell EIS members that there was no “educational rationale” to what Ledingham was proposing and warned that any attempt to cut such a large sum from the budget would affect attainment and achievement.
“I am here to say to them that the educational argument that has been put forward to support these cuts doesn’t hold water as far as I am concerned,” she said.
“Morale of teachers is really at rock bottom at a time when we really need teachers to be focused on the very challenging development work that is required to ensure that Curriculum for Excellence is going to be a success this coming year and that’s a real concern.”
Councillor Vaila Wishart
The chairwoman of the education and families committee echoed the concerns of the EIS that the “ongoing uncertainty” was damaging for everybody.
“You can’t plan anything ahead, I don’t think it’s good for anybody for this to continue much longer and I would like to see a decision at Wednesday’s meeting,” she said.
“This is a strategy paper and any decision made will be followed by a consultation, assuming we go ahead with the proposals. This should give us a sense of direction.
“I have been listening to what people have been saying and I understand their concerns, but what is important is that we can provide a high quality education for every child in Shetland and I would absolutely reject any suggestion that we want to create a two tier system.
“I think to defer things for any longer would be entirely irresponsible. People have had more than enough of the uncertainty.”
Shetland News will report live from the council chamber after the meeting starts at 10am.