SHETLAND Islands Council has agreed another change of course on its plans to cut back secondary education in rural areas following a huge groundswell of opposition from the affected communities.
Education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart won unanimous support from the Full Council for her motion calling for a report which will “reconsider” the way ahead and produce a proposal for consulting on either S1-S3 secondaries or outright closure for five junior highs – Aith, Baltasound, Mid Yell, Sandwick and Whalsay.
The committee met in Lerwick Town Hall on Monday morning to discuss a proposal to transfer S3 and S4 pupils in Sandwick to the Anderson High School from July 2016.
But committee members sanctioned a rethink, later ratified by the Full Council, after hearing from children’s services director Helen Budge.
She “reluctantly” recommended the S1-S2 option as marginally preferable to the S1-S4 status quo. Crucially, councillors heard that Education Scotland was unconvinced by the case for an S1-S2 junior high.
The two meetings came only 48 hours after more than 600 people marched through the streets of Lerwick in protest against the planned cuts. Walking under the Shetland-wide CURE (Communities United for Rural Education) banner, the protesters left councillors under no illusion about the strength of feeling in the countryside.
CURE spokesman Gordon Thomson said he was glad the “pointless” S1-S2 option had been ditched, but said communities would remain “apprehensive” about what the future holds.
“A stay of execution is the phrase that springs to mind,” he said. “I suppose it will be a case of seeing how the consultation goes with the other schools.”
Thomson said he hoped that, given the new Anderson High School won’t be complete for a couple of years, there was “time to sit down and see if a compromise can be struck”.
Budge has now been tasked with compiling a report, including a revised timetable for consultations, to go in front of the education and families committee and the Full Council on 1 and 2 July respectively – immediately before the summer recess.
Afterwards Wishart said it was important to get “all the facts and figures” in front of members early next month.
“It was clear from the consultation report that S1-S2 just didn’t stack up as members would have liked,” she said.
The option was tabled by Professor Don Ledingham, the educational consultant who was brought in to help the SIC with its savings drive last year.
One of the education committee’s religious representatives, Martin Tregonning, said he felt the council had been consulting on the wrong option and it should have known as much before now.
“It really shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that that’s what Education Scotland was saying,” he said. “I do think, to be honest, that we got it wrong.”
Officials have consistently put across the message that the introduction of curriculum for excellence across Scotland, effectively dividing secondary education into two three-year phases, means the days of S1-S4 junior highs are numbered.
The education service has also been served the daunting task of finding savings worth £700,000 this year, £800,000 in 2014/15 and over £1.5 million in 2015/16.
Wishart said she personally favoured keeping S1-S3 junior highs in the islands of Whalsay and Yell for geographical reasons. Sandwick, Baltasound and, to a lesser extent, Aith are the schools viewed as being most vulnerable to outright closure as the SIC continues tightening its belt.
“[Whalsay and Yell] really do need their young people to stay in the isles because there’s no way they can commute to the AHS every day,” Wishart said.
“We have to provide the best education within a budget that is diminishing, so we have to look very carefully at what we’re doing.”
Thomson said the overwhelming majority of those consulted would “certainly” oppose outright closure and may well be against the S1-S3 model too.
“If we had five junior high schools as S1-S3 I suspect a lot of parent councils would be happy with that, relieved that they’re not going to be closed,” he said. “But there’s an air of ‘divide and conquer’ about it because there are some more likely to be kept open than others.
“Obviously Baltasound, Aith and Sandwick are the ones that were mentioned on Friday by Vaila Wishart – I suppose those schools will feel apprehensive, Whalsay and Mid Yell maybe less so.”
• For more on Monday’s two meetings you can read our “as it happened” blog.
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