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New secondary consultation planned

Demonstrators march through Lerwick last month to celebrate rural education and dissuade the SIC from their closure and other cost saving plans. Photo Shetnews

SHETLAND Islands Council looks set to embark on a yet another new strategy for secondary education in the isles.

The SIC is now proposing to consult on two options of either closing each one of Shetland’s five junior high schools or converting them to S1 to S3 establishments.

The move means the council would abandon its programme of consultation on dropping S3 and 4 from its rural secondary schools, after a huge street demonstration in Lerwick a month ago.

On Wednesday councillors will decide whether to agree a recommendation made on Tuesday by its education and families committee to start consulting on the two latest options after the summer holidays.

First in line would be Mid Yell and Whalsay junior highs, who would be consulted from 19 September until 18 November, with a decision taken in February next year.

The following August the council would start consulting on Baltasound junior high, with the future of Aith and Sandwick up for consultation in October 2015.

The proposal was agreed unanimously by the families and education committee with virtually no debate, suggesting it will sail through Wednesday’s council meeting.

Children’s services director Helen Budge said she still remained convinced that S1 to S6 schools provided pupils with the best educational opportunities, but acknowledged Shetland’s geography raised other issues.

“We know that Education Scotland say S1 to 4 is no longer possible, and we know that communities across Shetland don’t think S1 to 2 is an option either,” she said.

“The other two options are S1 to 3 or closure, so we thought it was only fair to ask communities what they think of both options.”

Angry protesters encircling Lerwick Town Hall last November when the council voted to consult on Don Ledingham's S1-2 suggestion. Photo Shetnews

It was only last November that the council opted to consult on S1 to S2 schools on the advice of education consultant Don Ledingham and under pressure from angry communities who staged an angry protest outside Lerwick Town Hall.

Education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart said she had always thought S1 to 3 was a better option.

“We started off looking at S1 to 3 and I was very keen on that, but maybe the community wasn’t – and we have been told the status quo is not an option.”

Education staff will spend the summer break examining what kind of education an S1 to 3 secondary school would offer.

There is a strong possibility it will not be as good as that provided in the two high schools, with the council still desperate to find any way of saving money.

SIC finance chief James Gray said that even if the council closed all its junior high schools and the four primary schools up for consultation in North Roe, Urafirth, Burravoe and Sandness, it would still be spending more than £2 million too much on children’s services.

On Tuesday councillors had a long discussion about a report comparing the cost of education in Shetland and the other Scottish islands.

Shetland spends far more than any other local authority in Scotland, and last year secondary pupils here cost  30 per cent more to educate than both Orkney and the western isles.

While other authorities can only spend what they receive from the government for education, Shetland spends £12 million from its reserves on top of the £19 million it receives from Holyrood.

Work carried out in the past year has brought Shetland’s spend per pupil very close to the other two island authorities, but SIC finance chief James Gray said the western isles had increased the gap again by saving an extra £1.3 million on schools in the past year.

Comparisons were made between Baltasound junior high, which has around eight teachers and costs £4,930 per pupil, and Stronsay, in Orkney, which has half the number of staff teaching the same number of children for £1,884 per pupil.

Budge said that if the number of teachers was cut to Stronsay levels it would have an impact on the curriculum.

Councillors praised staff for the hard work they had done comparing costs with other islands, and have asked them to go away and look more closely at pupil/teacher ratios and the impact that has on how well pupils perform.

SIC deputy leader Billy Fox said: “This is an extremely important report and my only criticism would be that we should have done this a number of years ago.

“It concerns me that this disparity has never been addressed before, because it’s possible that some of the efficiencies we have made and a good deal of the angst driven into the community could have been avoided.”

The council’s report on comparative costs can be seen here.