SHETLAND Islands Council’s education and families committee has rejected plans to shut two small primary schools in Northmavine.
Committee members voted 7-4 to retain North Roe primary and unanimously agreed to maintain a primary school and nursery in Urafirth. It followed more than three hours of even-tempered questioning and debate in Lerwick Town Hall on Tuesday.
Both moves went against the advice of the local authority’s children’s services department. Officials had recommended a merger involving the transfer of pupils to Northmavine’s third primary school, in Ollaberry, from summer 2015.
The decision could yet be overturned at a Full Council meeting on Wednesday, but the verdict will give parents who have protested vehemently against the closures strong hope that their schools will be saved.
A petition bearing more than 200 signatures was handed to SIC convener Malcolm Bell by Urafirth parents on Monday, while written responses and the sentiment at public meetings were overwhelmingly against the closures.
Committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart had moved in favour of shutting North Roe, but Shetland North member Andrea Manson’s amendment won out. When Wishart then moved to retain Urafirth, Manson was “delighted” to second her.
Wishart – along with SIC leader Gary Robinson – had argued that North Roe’s school had “gone beyond the point of no return”, with the pupil roll set to fall to five next year.
She argued pupils would benefit from interacting with children of the same age at Ollaberry.
“If [children are in] a very small class of, for example five… they’re unlikely to have contact with children of the same age,” Wishart said. “Making friends is an important part of a child’s development.”
It is “depopulation which leads to consultation on closures”, not the other way around, she contended: “The drift into towns just does not stop, and it’s not just a Shetland phenomenon – it’s a worldwide phenomenon.”
Amid scepticism from parents, council officials insisted they were confident concerns about travel times from North Roe to Ollaberry would be overcome.
But Manson rejected that, claiming it was impossible to make the journey – including pick-ups – within 40 minutes. She said the school was “vital” and the only service the council provided to the area.
The economic effect and travel times were the reasons North Roe was spared the axe in 2011, she continued.
While the pupil roll is at a low ebb just now, Manson referred to a “mini baby boom” in the area and more “buns in the oven” meaning the number of pupils is “set to double” before the decade is out.
Others pointed out that – aside of crofting – the school provided the only full time employment in North Roe.
Shetland South member Billy Fox, whose children were taught in Urafirth for several years, said the notion of shutting a “first class” school would be “absolutely criminal” and a “real body blow” to the thriving Hillswick community.
Manson also sang Urafirth’s praises, referencing its mini croft, polytunnels, green fields, cycle track, beach access, wooded area and the joint projects it carries out with Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary.
“None of this is going to be available at the receiving school,” she said, “so the delivery of Curriculum for Excellence in Urafirth goes way beyond anything taught elsewhere.”
Former teacher Peter Campbell was pleased the debate had been a calm one thanks to the tone set by education official Audrey Edwards.
He said the SIC had “battered our rural communities” with closure plans for the past decade. “Fortunately they have not bowed down to the pressure that’s been applied,” Campbell said, “and it’s time the council as a whole recognises the fragility of communities and offers support to them.”
Fox also praised Edwards for how well she acquitted herself during a “gruelling” morning of questions. He had “a degree of sympathy” for Hayfield staff, whose duty is to focus on educational matters.
But, while he accepted there was a “degree of difficulty” educationally with a pupil roll of just five, Fox said councillors had a duty to take the socioeconomic effects of closure into account.
If the proposed £69,000 savings from shutting North Roe were reinvested in regenerating the community it would go “nowhere at all”, he said.
Edwards stressed that a school’s main function was to deliver education, and pointed out that Northmavine’s population fell by 12 per cent – from 841 to 741 – between 2004 and 2013 despite the three schools staying open.
Robinson said the decision was not about closing “bad” schools, but maintaining a high standard of education in “challenging times”.
He said that in 2012/13 the SIC spent £48.5 million on education, but it only received £29.5 million from the Scottish Government for that purpose, and more government cuts are on the way.
According to Hayfield’s figures, shutting the two primaries along with Urafirth’s nursery would yield annual savings of around £156,000. Along with overhauling secondary education, the primary closures form part of efforts to save more than £4 million a year by 2020.
“I’d argue that it’s jobs that are more crucial than ever,” Robinson said. “Commuting isn’t cheap, and if we keep spending on education as we are I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to re-enter the frame for economic development as we have in the past.”
However Shetland North member Alastair Cooper argued that saving North Roe in 2011 had been a “hollow victory” as the council had done nothing to help revive the area since, while the “sword of Damocles came back down on the community within months”.
Fresh legislation now means that schools staving off the threat of closure will now enjoy a five-year moratorium before councils can attempt to shut them again.
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