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Letters / Withdraw the school closure programme!

Attempting to justify the closure of rural schools, SIC education committee chair Vaila Wishart wrote a Sounding Off piece in the Shetland Times on 6 June 2014, stating:

“…. there are five junior high schools for fewer than 350 pupils, which is the main reason that the cost per secondary pupil is just under £14,000, more than double the national average….

…..The Western Isles …. has a cost per pupil of £9,471. Orkney(‘s) …. cost per pupil is £9,468.

…..The Blueprint for Education was commissioned in 2007 because it was recognised that if Shetland could reduce its pupil costs to match Eilean Siar it would save more than £4.8 million.”

By writing this she confirmed the reason for creating the “Blueprint” and its closure project was financial.

However, within weeks, following an investigation by the SIC’s Finance Dept., the parent councils had challenged the financial case by showing that Shetland’s cost per pupil is not £14,000 per pupil but £10,000.

Significantly, the SIC has not refuted this, yet there has been neither explanation, apology nor resignation. They are ploughing on, regardless.

Given Shetland’s less amenable geography (many Western Isles islands are linked by road causeways), the difference is negligible and in any case, is likely “tweakable” to bring the relative costs into line.

Thus the original premise for creating the “Blueprint for Education” (closures) is false.

However, she put up another argument:

“…….it must be clear now to all but the most die-hard opponents of change to the junior high school system that S1-S4 is no longer viable because of the way the curriculum is being provided: three years of broad general education followed by a senior phase of three years.”

Well, I’ll grant Ms Wishart I’m likely one of her “die-hard opponents”, however, her statement is pure hyperbole. It isn’t at all clear that “S1-S4 is no longer viable”.

It’s arguable that S1-S3 may be preferable in the narrow sense of provision of educational facilities but that does not mean “S1-S4 is no longer viable”. Other factors highlighted by parents come into it, not to mention the time wasted, packing and sitting on buses and ferries.

It’s unclear whether Ms Wishart counts Education Scotland and education minister Mike Russell among her “die-hard opponents”, however, both have reportedly confirmed the “viability” of junior highs for delivering the “flexible” Curriculum for Excellence.

Given that the Blueprint for Education and its financial driver preceded the “no longer viable” argument, the suspicion arises that the latter was hatched as a means of getting around the Scottish government’s stipulation that rural schools may only be closed on grounds of quality of education.

In her election address, Vaila Wishart stated her aim of reducing the number of schools to form larger educational units. And she has honoured her pledge, remorselessly, during her tenure as education committee chair.

Schools have closed and only the determined, united front presented against her by CURE has, so far, averted several more closures.

The council’s two main arguments for closures have collapsed and Vaila Wishart, however honourable and well-intentioned she may have been in her actions, must surely now consider her position.

From her election address to this day, she has made the school closure programme her own and has driven a forthright, determined campaign to see it through.

But she has lost the argument, wasting a colossal amount of everyone’s time, money and energy, not to mention family and community angst, in the process.

Vaila Wishart should now either accept defeat and withdraw her closure programme and/or resign as education committee chair, with immediate effect.

That would be the honourable thing to do.

John Tulloch