RURAL Shetland turned out in force on Saturday morning to march through Lerwick in protest at the local council’s plans to close and cut the size of schools in outlying districts.
More than 600 people turned up in a show of strength organised by Communities United For Rural Education, which represents all the areas where schools are under threat.
It was the biggest protest yet in 15 years of communities fighting a continuous campaign by Shetland Islands Council to reduce its overstretched education budget by closing schools.
It was also the biggest demonstration Lerwick has seen since a similar sized crowd marched in protest at the UK’s planned invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The march took place two days before Shetland Islands Council debates the future of Sandwick junior high school, one of five secondary schools where it proposes to remove the third and fourth year.
Also earmarked for closure to save money are four primary schools in Sandness, Urafirth, North Roe and Burravoe.
On Saturday folk had travelled in cars, buses and ferries from the islands of Yell, Unst and Whalsay as well as the south, west and north mainland to take part in what was billed as a celebration of rural education.
Drummers from the westside group Aestaewest led a colourful procession of people of all ages sporting banners and costumes promoting their local schools and communities.
They gathered at Lerwick’s Market Cross at 11am before marching along Commercial Street and the Esplanade before returning to the Market Cross to cheer and shout, several with tears in their eyes.
“It’s been a real visual demonstration and says more than letters and words how strong people feel about their rural schools,” said Aith junior high parent council chairman Jeremy Sansom.
CURE secretary Gordon Thomson said he hoped the council would pay attention to the strength of feeling on display.
“More than 600 people have come here today at considerable expense from all the islands and outlying areas and it shows how strong people feel about supporting their schools,” he said.
Raymond Mainland, of Sandwick junior high parent council, added: “This is a fantastic turnout and more than we expected. The whole of Shetland has come out today to unite against what the council is doing.
“We have to see rural education in Shetland as an investment in our rural communities, because they lie at the heart of those communities.”
Several people said that for the first time the council was removing any choice about where secondary pupils could be educated, questioning whether they were breaching children’s human rights.
Clare Balfour, from Brae, was educated on Yell and went to the Anderson high school in Lerwick after S2 as is now being proposed, but said it was unfair to force all children to do so.
“Half the bairns in our class went to Lerwick and the other half chose to stay on at Mid Yell – but we did have a choice,” she said.
Shetland North councillor Andrea Manson, one of a handful of councillors attending the march, agreed. “When we were 13 there was quite a few that came to the Anderson high that had to go home because of homesickness or they felt out of their depth, they just couldn’t hack it,” she said.
Manson is one of several councillors who believe that there are alternative ways of saving money without closing schools.
SNP list MSP Mike Mackenzie, who has been championing the schools of late, said he was delighted by the turn out.
“It demonstrates the depth of feeling they have on the issue of these schools and education reform,” he said.
“I hope the council recognise that they need to reengage with their communities and that their consultation has so far been badly lacking.”
On Monday morning the SIC’s families and education committee will debate whether to end third and fourth year education at Sandwick junior high school ahead of a council decision on the issue in the afternoon.
However councillors have also asked for a report to be compiled explaining the reasons behind it costing £3,000 to educate a pupil in Shetland than it does on Orkney or the western isles.
No such report has yet been published, raising questions over whether members will want to make a decision on Monday or defer it to a later date.
Monday’s debate will be watched throughout the isles, especially in the west mainland, Yell, Unst and Whalsay where junior high schools also face losing their third and fourth years.
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