COUNCILLORS and officers faced a barrage of hostility to plans to close two primary schools in Northmavine at a packed public meeting in Hillswick on Wednesday.
More than 200 people, ranging from great grandparents to babes in arms, filled the newly refurbished Hillswick public hall to lambast Shetland Islands Council representatives over proposals to save £190,000 a year by closing North Roe primary and Urafith primary and nursery schools.
During the two and a half hour formal consultation meeting a succession of speakers steadily demolished the council’s arguments for shutting Urafirth primary, purpose built in ample grounds just 21 years ago.
The next five years will see its school roll more than triple, turning it once again into a two teacher school.
The consultation meeting also rallied to protect North Roe, which faces the fifth attempt to close its doors in the past 15 years.
Nine of Shetland’s 22 SIC members attended the spirited session, described by some as the biggest and most voluble they had experienced during the history of the Blueprint for Education exercise, which seeks to lop more than £3 million from the council’s £42 million education budget.
The council had been taken aback by the size of the turn out, having asked for just 40 chairs to be put out. In the end 200 chairs were insufficient to seat everyone, with latecomers forced to stand at the rear of the hall.
In Northmavine the proposal to educate all nursery and primary age children in Ollaberry has been met with outrage and disbelief.
At one point local councillor Andrea Manson was met with rousing applause when she called for the entire consultation on school closures to be abandoned.
On Wednesday night councillors and officials struggled to answer many of the points raised by local people on issues ranging from transport to infrastructure to educational benefit.
Local hall committee chairman Alistair Williamson set the tone of the meeting by calling the transport arrangements that had been designed without a risk assessment as “a load of bollocks”.
Some of the most telling comments came from the youngest and oldest attending the meeting.
Eleven year old Urafirth primary pupil Cassie Gilbertson could not believe the panel were “really serious” about transporting kids long distances on ungritted single track roads “in the snow and rain and sleet in the winter times”.
Dismissing arguments that teaching children in larger classes provided them with a better education, 18 year old former Urafirth pupil Jolene Arthur said being the only person in her year had helped her get on in life.
“I really struggled with my maths and because the teacher was able to sit with me one to one I was able to study maths and I am now studying accounting at HNC level,” she said.
Thirteen year old Catrina Hughson said since going to Brae high school she had discovered those taught in the small rural schools got some of the highest marks.
Meanwhile 80 year old Chrissie Manson recalled how many bairns left Hillswick and Eshaness for New Zealand 60 years ago and how heartened she was to see houses being refurbished and built again, with young families moving in.
“I really do think that whoever thought up this harebrained scheme…has no idea what is going on at the coal face and certainly no knowledge of the geography of Northmavine,” she said.
Elizabeth Cromarty from North Roe, whose grand daughter attends Urafirth nursery, said the council was “tearing away” the heart of the community by closing schools when people were struggling to rebuild it.
”It’s such a pity when we have worked so hard; what I would like you to mind is that Shetland doesn’t stop at Brae.”
But children’s services director Helen Budge read out a list of the wide range of benefits to having bigger schools with larger class sizes.
Quality improvement manager Audrey Edwards added: “What we are saying is that through bringing bairns together in the one school gives you a more viable and sustainable school.”
Quality improvement officer Bob Sim said the standard of education was very high at all three Northmavine primaries, but argued amalgamation would create opportunities for further improvement and help teachers support each other.
Transport manager Michael Craigie came under heavy fire for the proposed pick up points in Eshaness at exposed road junctions, with young children expected to make their own way to meet the bus.
Ewan Mowat, from Hillswick, said: “Eighty years ago my father had to walk to school but at least he got to the school that way. Now you walk and then you have to get a bus, so in my view it’s 80 plus years going backwards.”
Alistair Williamson said the council was “putting young bairns lives at risk – you have not thought about this, you are just doing this for money”.
He won support for his suggestion that parents should be part of any risk assessment, notably from Shetland North councillor Alastair Cooper who said it was a “very, very good idea”.
Cooper added that in the past he had persuaded his fellow members to keep North Roe primary open by taking them on a minibus showing them the route children would have to take to Ollaberry.
“We should have parents, officers, members do the journey and see how long it takes and understand the full implications of it,” he said.
Many questions were asked about why the council was looking to close such a high quality school as Urafirth, with good quality facilities, plenty of room for expansion, situated near to the local health centre and even a wind turbine to cut its power bills.
Others questioned how Ollaberry would cope with the forecast school roll and how it could expand when it was surrounded by a burn, a road, a car park and a multicourt.
Deep concerns were raised about omissions and inaccuracies in a document drawn up following an “informal consultation” into the relative benefits of Ollaberry and Urafirth as Northmavine’s receiving school.
Helen Budge said they had taken on board the community’s unhappiness with the exercise from which they had learned never to go through such a process again.
However Northmavine community council vice chairman John Alex Cromarty suggested that had the informal consultation been done properly they might have found a proposal that “folk could pull together on”.
SIC education and families committee vice chairman George Smith denied suggestions that the consultation was a mere formality and a decision had already been taken.
He said: “It’s absolutely not a done deal as far as I am concerned and I hope I am speaking for all the councillors. The purpose of this meeting is to hear the strength of feeling and I would commend you all for making the points you have made.”
Committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart agreed that the meeting had been “pretty unanimous” and urged people to put their points in writing to the council to be considered.
But Andrea Manson said it was time for the council to abandon the entire school closure consultation, as things had changed so dramatically since the initial proposals were drafted two years ago.
George Smith agreed that communities had been under attack for too long as the council attempted to save money by closing schools.
“Unless the council changes its policy and invests in education to allow these schools to stay I think there will always be a continuous battle,” he said.
“The council needs to take a different view and change its policy.”
Meanwhile Helen Budge made it clear that the education department had done all it can to save money by reducing staff at its Hayfield House headquarters in Lerwick as well as in schools throughout the islands, along with cutting classes such as knitting and free music instruction.
She also said that officials did understand the impact these proposals were having on communities.
“We experience folk’s feelings night upon night and we do hear and we actually understand some of that, I take that point,” she said.
The councillors attending the meeting were Andrea Manson and Alastair Cooper from the north mainland, education and families committee chair and vice chair Vaila Wishart and George Smith, Shetland South member Billy Fox, Lerwick North member Michael Stout, North Isles member Steven Coutts, Shetland West member Theo Smith and council leader Gary Robinson.
A meeting at North Roe on Monday night was attended by 48 people and a third meeting will be held at Ollaberry hall on Thursday night at 7pm.