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News / Skerries set to shut on convener’s casting vote

Skerries residents John West, Alice Arthur, Brenda Hay, Valerie McMillan, Mellany Gorman and Julie Arthur (from left to right) travelled to Lerwick to follow the debate in Lerwick town hall - Photo: Hans J Marter/ShetNews

SKERRIES’ small secondary department looks set to shut after a two and a half hour debate culminated in SIC convener Malcolm Bell’s casting vote in favour of closure. 

The vote had been tied at 10-10, with half of the councillors supporting education committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart’s motion to shut the department. The other half backed North Isles member Steven Coutts’ attempt to spark a consultation on maintaining an S1-S2 school in the community.

Scottish education minister Mike Russell now has to consider whether to “call in” the decision for further consideration.

If he chooses not to then Skerries secondary pupils will be transferred to the Anderson High School beginning in August 2014. The council estimates the move will save around £73,000 a year.

It followed an even-tempered debate in which members sought to balance the prospect of a wider educational experience for Skerries pupils against the potentially “severe” economic damage closure could have on the fragile island’s economy.

Skerries’ major contribution to the Shetland economy through fishing and fish farming were again highlighted.

Those factors were widely credited with having persuaded a majority of councillors to side with former political leader Josie Simpson when the school faced the threat of closure in 2010.

Other councillors argued that education had to take priority, and suggested shutting the secondary department would not necessarily result in the feared exodus of young families from Skerries.

Wishart said that “having access to a larger peer group of the same age and gender” was currently being denied to Skerries pupils.

“When it comes to health and wellbeing they need the opportunity to make friends and be part of a group in a range of situations,” she said.

Coutts countered that the council did not “exist in an educational vacuum”.

He agreed there would be “challenges” in delivering S1 and S2 education to pupils in Skerries, but “those challenges could be overcome”.

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Education officials said moving to the AHS would provide pupils with greater access to subject choice, specialist teachers, after-school activities and the chance to take part in team sports.

Regarding the suggestion that a primary teacher could be “skilled up” to cater for S1 and S2 as well, quality improvement officer Audrey Edwards said education professionals had “enormous concern” at that prospect.

It could result in one teacher simultaneously “teaching early numeracy and early literacy to a primary two child and delivering aspects of the secondary curriculum”.

Coutts also wanted to know how the closure decision fitted with the SIC’s corporate plan and its commitment to “maintain the working age population throughout Shetland”

Specifically, he wondered how moving towards caring for the elderly in their own homes could be delivered if we “uproot these folk that have made

Skerries their home for decades”.Lerwick councillor Michael Stout, who grew up in Fair Isle, had a negative view of life in the hostel having been through the process of leaving home aged 11 himself.

“Homesickness is a universal truth,” Stout said. “Spewing on a bad day on the boat – those are the issues that have to be taken into account when we’re talking about balance.”

He also advocates greater use of technology to allow education to be delivered to remote parts of the isles.

South Mainland member Billy Fox reminded his colleagues that Skerries’ gross contribution to the isles’ economy exceeded £5 million, with much of the benefit flowing to suppliers based in Shetland.

Political leader Gary Robinson said that, while an independent socioeconomic study suggested there “could” be a negative impact, it did not necessarily follow that there “would” be.

“Many island communities thrive without a secondary school, and I believe that the Skerries community can thrive too,” Robinson said.

Wishart added: “This doomsday scenario that everything is going to fall by the wayside if we close a school that currently has three pupils in it – I don’t think that’s the case, because I think the Skerries community is stronger than that.”

Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills felt that if Skerries was allowed to keep its secondary it would only be fair to offer one to other islands with small populations such as Fair Isle, Fetlar, Foula and Papa Stour.

But North Isles councillor Gary Cleaver felt shutting the school would remove parental choice: “We force people to either put up and shut up, or move,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a good option to put to a community.”

With the result a dead heat following a roll call, with the words “casting vote to the motion”, convener Bell appears – barring Holyrood intervention – to have consigned Scotland’s smallest secondary school to closure.

It prompted thumbs down signals and a mixture of disappointment and anger from Skerries parents watching via video link upstairs in Lerwick Town Hall.

Those voting for Wishart’s motion in favour of closure were: Malcolm Bell, Gary Robinson, Vaila Wishart, George Smith, Allison Duncan, Allan Wishart, Cecil Smith, Davie Sandison, Jonathan Wills and Drew Ratter.

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



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