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Letters / Opinion: Deeply worrying

Wednesday 2 July 2014 was a day which we suspect will be remembered in Shetland for a long time – and not just because of the record temperatures and joyful Commonwealth Games Baton Relay.

2 July saw the adoption of a (yet again) amended strategy for secondary education in Shetland. For anyone concerned about schooling in our islands, this strategy should be deeply worrying.

Here we concentrate on three aspects of the amended strategy:

• The over-inflated cost per pupil in Shetland
• The enormous implications for the Anderson as a result of completely closing all the junior highs
• The eradication of junior highs as we know them.

The “almost £4,000 per secondary pupil more expensive than in Western Isles or Orkney” was largely a myth.

A study has been done by the council comparing Shetland secondary education costs to those in Orkney and the Western Isles. The reason for the study was to explain the difference between the Shetland costs per pupil (said to be £13,700) and the Orkney and Western Isles figures (£9,800 each).

The study found that secondary education in Shetland actually costs about £3,600 less than the oft-quoted figure of £13,700 per secondary pupil. The difference is for two reasons:

• The comparisons were not true like-for-like comparisons
• Recent savings made to secondary education in Shetland had not been included.

This is shown in the table below.

  Per secondary pupil annual expenditure, Shetland   Total cost of Shetland secondary schools (1460 pupils)  
As stated by Children’s Services for 2012/13   £13,700 £20 million
Actual for 2012/13 after adjustments made to ensure like for like comparison £11,500 £16.8 million
Actual for 2013.14 after savings made to date are included £10,100 £14.8 million

This demonstrates that per pupil spending for secondary education in Shetland is in fact around 26 per cent lower than the oft-quoted (but incorrect) £13,700 figure. Therefore the total budget for secondary education in Shetland is also 26 per cent lower, when we do a like-for-like comparison and include recent savings. We know of course that the “like-for-like adjustments” are real money that was really spent, but the whole point is that the money didn’t belong in the secondary school budget.

The amended strategy, however, is based on the old figures and in no way acknowledges that a budget which is 26 per cent smaller should be expected to produce lower savings. Indeed the SIC went on to immediately vote for an even more drastic proposal – when the figure was said to be £13,700 per pupil, the most drastic proposal was to halve the size of the junior high school estate.

Now that the figure is shown to be around £10,000 the most drastic proposal is to completely close all junior highs. This means that the secondary education “pie” has become smaller, but the slice to be taken out has become bigger. This fact was not debated for even five minutes in the Council Chamber on 2 July.

Who benefits from a bigger, cheaper Anderson?

The new Anderson High, with all junior high schools closed (2017)
1175 pupils (up from 895 today)
Only £434,000 added to the budget, or about £1,550 per additional pupil

If all the junior high schools close, the Anderson would have 30 per cent more pupils than it does today, but only about 10 per cent more budget. This is because when a junior high shuts, a lot of money is spent on transport and (sometimes) halls of residence and then most of the rest of the money disappears as savings. All of the closed schools’ pupils move to the new school, but only a tiny fraction of the budget does.

It is striking that the junior high budgets are analysed in forensic detail, but the implications of the new strategy for the Anderson are not spelt out at all. Given that all of us are parents of future Anderson pupils, this worries us enormously.

The proud tradition of S1-4 junior highs killed off without discussion

The vote on 2 July also ended the junior highs as we now know them, but astonishingly this was not debated at all in the chamber. Pupils will no longer be able to stay at their junior high until the school leaving age and gain that first all-important qualification at the end of S4. For the first time ever, pupils will have no choice but to go to Lerwick to complete their education.

The council argues that this change is at the behest of Education Scotland. Continually we hear that Education Scotland no longer believes that S1-4 is viable.

In our correspondence with them Education Scotland stated as recently as this June: “Junior High Schools such as those in Shetland can be a feature in remote, rural communities……The Curriculum [for Excellence] provides a non-prescriptive, permissive policy framework which enables local circumstances and choices to be met in a way that best suits the learner’s needs, irrespective of the school system.”

In other words the council must take into account Shetland’s unique geography and has a great deal of flexibility about how to implement the new Curriculum. There’s nothing in the Curriculum for Excellence which dictates that S4 has to be abolished.

The amended secondary education strategy contemplates closing all the junior high schools and we have explained what we think of that idea. But on closer scrutiny a strange fact emerges – by 2018 there won’t actually be room for all the bairns from the junior highs and the Anderson would be over-capacity.

The situation for the halls of residence is even more drastic – consultations about closing Mid Yell and Whalsay start next month, but there is insufficient capacity in the new halls to accommodate the pupils. So maybe there is no intention after all to close all the junior highs. Why then are we spending all this time and emotion and money on these closure proceedings?

The answer lies in the excessive cuts which are being made to secondary education. The comparison paper with Orkney and Western Isles starts out by comparing overall council spending in Shetland with other local authorities.

Shetland spends 60 per cent more than Orkney and 22 per cent more than the Western Isles. Obviously this can’t continue. But it certainly isn’t secondary education which causes these vast discrepancies because, as we have seen, costs per secondary pupil are broadly comparable with Orkney and the Western Isles. We’ve seen spending per pupil fall from the stated £13,700 to £10,100 and now there are plans to further reduce it to £8,900. Secondary education is taking a disproportionate hit. Why?

Secondary education has lost its way in Shetland. And in the meantime, next month we start the long and gruelling process of formal consultations about closures and asking hundreds (yes hundreds) of bairns what they feel about either leaving home at the age of 11 or 12, or embarking on long journeys to school every week day.

We know that some excellent work is being done in the Town Hall to defend secondary education and explore a range of alternatives. We appreciate the exhausting work involved and the commissioning of the comparison with the other island authorities, but the facts highlighted must be discussed.

It must be understood that ultimately all any parent wants is the best for their child, for them to be nurtured in a loving environment and educated to the highest standard. We want to preserve our heritage and communities and the only way that will happen is through the education of our children, not the removal of choice.

Kari Hamilton, Chair, Whalsay Parent Council
John Irvine, Chair, Mid Yell Parent Council
Jeremy Sansom, Chair, Aith Parent Council
Catriona Waddington, Chair, Baltasound Parent Council
The chair of Sandwick Parent Council is on holiday.

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