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SIC - Free Tyre Check - 22 Nov 2019

Letters / Opinion: alternative approach to education

Mike MacKenzie MSP

The SNP’s Highlands and Islands list MSP Mike Mackenzie argues that Shetland Islands Council should “halt” its planned consultations on secondary education cutbacks and possible school closures.

I WAS PLEASED to witness for myself the demonstration against the educational reforms in Lerwick on 7 June. It was a cheerful and good natured demonstration and a great example of democracy in action.

I am glad too that Shetland Islands Council paid heed to the message although less glad about the outcome, which is to rush into yet another series of consultations on the offer of a cynical choice between closures or adopting an S1-S3 model for the junior secondary schools.

It seems that the SIC may have heard the message delivered by parents but did not properly listen to it. This is an old trick, offering the choice between a completely unpalatable prospect and one which is perhaps less unpalatable and the real preferred option.

One interesting development is the renewed comparison of education costs with Orkney and the Western Isles. School campaigners have quickly shown the errors in this comparison, which doesn’t factor in the significant savings already made in Shetland’s education costs. When this is done costs appear to be roughly comparable between the three authorities.

What is entirely missing from this equation though, is the educational funding the three authorities receive from the Scottish Government. This is important because the real cost to the SIC is the difference between what it spends on education and what it receives from government. When this is factored in an entirely different picture emerges. GAE allocation figures in 2012/13 for education for the three local authorities are:

• Western Isles £27.9m
• Orkney £22.1m
• Shetland £29.1m

This significantly alters the calculation with the real cost of education per pupil being lower still in Shetland. 

A further myth that seems to persist is that Education Scotland are forcing the SIC into these proposals and have issued an edict that the S4 model for junior secondaries is not compatible with curriculum for excellence. This item was top of the agenda at a recent meeting Jean Urquhart and myself had with education minister Michael Russell, who confirmed that this was absolutely not the case. Education Scotland are not forcing the SIC into these reforms. 

The SIC’s proposed reforms are not about educational improvement. Indeed there is little educational need for improvement and certainly not the wholescale reform that is suggested. We know this is true because Shetland already does exceptionally well in educational attainment. This is one of the main reasons that Shetland is always one of the top areas in Scotland when quality of life studies are published.

If Shetland wants to grow its population, which it must, then it would be well advised to leave such a top performing education system well alone. Some fine tuning may be merited but wholescale reform should be ruled out. The old adage, “if it isn’t broken why fix it”, springs to mind. 

Protesters marched through Lerwick against proposed education cuts in June.

If this pretence is abandoned we are left with the real reason for education reform, which is an attempt to reduce expenditure, and this is in turn driven by the medium term financial plan. This is a good plan although I understand that putting it together was fraught with political difficulty. I sympathise therefore with councillors who are protective of the plan. One of the best parts of this plan is its stated flexibility. This is as it should be. It is instructive therefore to read both the 2012-17 and the 2013-18 plans and to see this flexibility put into practice. 

Reading the 2013 plan it is immediately obvious that things are much better than they were in 2012. There are still traces of doom and gloom in the language used, although it is difficult to see the reason for this as no one reading this updated plan can argue that Shetland’s fortunes are not significantly improving.

For example the returns generated on the council’s invested reserves during 2012-13 were exceptionally high at 14.6%, against a long term average of 5.75% and against a predicted 2% return in 2012. It is sensible to establish a ‘Reserves Equalisation Fund’ but is it really necessary to transfer the full £15m of additional income immediately into this fund?

Consideration is being given to prudential borrowing to fund the contribution towards the new Anderson High School. This again is sensible and the implication, if this decision is taken, is to further relieve the burden on capital reserves.

The housing debt situation has been favourably resolved ending another longstanding financial headache. Income from the Total gas plant of around £5.5m per annum is now reliably predicted in 2015-16. Income from fees and charges is now £12,832,469, up from £9,642,113 last year.

All of this is so positive that the council has now moved the goalposts to the extent that the tolerable reserves floor has been increased from £125m to £150m. This is an outstanding achievement in a single year but it does beg the question as to whether the full extent of cuts envisaged in 2012 are now really necessary. Flexibility in financial plans should cut both ways.

There is a further factor which should figure in these calculations and that is the need to grow Shetland’s population. As Gary Robinson rightly acknowledges in a recent letter to Shetland News, Shetland must address its demographic balance. In order to achieve that aim surely one of Shetland’s greatest assets, with which to entice young families to move to the islands, is the quality of education on offer. There is already an indication that school rolls are falling less steeply than they are in Orkney and the Western Isles. I would argue that the spare capacity within Shetland’s junior secondary schools should be viewed as an asset and an opportunity, rather than a drain on budgets. In addition, by increasing the working age population and consequently the school rolls the amount received from government will rise and per capita costs of providing education will fall.

This is the alternative approach to education that I would urge the SIC to take. In cities across Scotland parents pay exorbitant sums for homes within the catchment areas of schools that are known to be good. Quality of education is a very powerful argument in the minds of any young families contemplating a move to Shetland. I doubt that many would contemplate the move at present given the current educational crisis brought about by these interminable consultations.

This constant consultation and uncertainty is already blighting the education of young Shetlanders. I sympathise with all of Shetland’s councillors charged with the job of forcing this unwholesome medicine down the throats of the communities they represent. I do feel that there is an alternative approach and that councillors’ lives will get much better if they halt this process, at least until the new AHS is built, and in the meantime take advantage of Shetland’s many economic opportunities and work together with all of their constituents on a positive agenda for improving Shetland’s prospects.

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