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News / Live: Full Council debates Northmavine schools

Urafirth parents outside Lerwick Town Hall on Wednesday morning. Photo: Shetnews/Hans Marter

Councillors are in a packed Lerwick Town Hall chamber to debate yesterday’s decision by the education and families committee to keep the North Roe and Urafirth primary schools open, contrary to the recommendation of the children’s services department.

1.38pm – Robinson says he thinks we should remove consultations on shutting Sandess and Burravoe altogether. They have more populous rolls and he doesn’t want to “waste any more” of officials’ time. Seconded by Vaila Wishart, and no-one else says otherwise.

The council’s blueprint for education proposals are now in greater disarray than ever before.

1.35pm – Wills’ amendment to shut Urafirth is trounced by 18 votes to three – his only support came from Allison Duncan and Allan Wishart. So both Urafirth and North Roe primaries will stay open.

1.30pm – Wills says it appears there is no appetite for rational, evidence-based decision making which “must dismay our officials almost as much as it dismays me”. 

It’s very good to defend your parish, Wills says, but we’re here to defend the whole of Shetland’s solvency, and we’re not doing it.

“We cannot afford to continue to run lots of small schools,” Wills says, his voice raising. “Is that really complicated? Apparently it’s too complicated for our education committee.”

To suggest the council has done nothing for Northmavine is nonsense, he continues. Perhaps Alastair Cooper would like to see the development budget cut, he suggests. “Irrational, emotional” decisions – council is still perched on the edge of a cliff. If budgets not under control councillors will pay at ballot box in 2017 – he won’t, as he’s not standing, Wills says – prompting even louder foot-stamping from upstairs.

Vaila Wishart says the council is following pattern of previous councils – “losing our bottle” halfway through. Closing schools is a very emotional subject and we’re never going to get anywhere with rational arguments. That is why I’ll ask you to support the motion and keep Urafirth open.

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1.26pm – George Smith says he’s “not going to rise” to councillor Duncan’s remarks after having a couple of minutes to calm down. He feels a duty to respect the decision of the committee.

1.25pm – Andrea Manson – not about failing to take hard decisions, but about not making the wrong decision. That prompts much foot-stamping from those watching via video link upstairs in the town hall.

She repeats her belief that Urafirth, with its mini-croft, polytunnel and other outdoor activties, is a wonderful school in an area enjoying regeneration.

This process has led to a realisation that the council is not there with an open chequebook, and if areas are going to thrive people are going to have to do it for themselves.

1.22pm – Things have very suddenly turned somewhat stormy at the town hall.

Wills wonders what staff will think. “It’s shameful, what’s just happened”, he says, and if he was one of the education officials whose recommendations are being rejceted he’d be on the phone to Petrofac for a more comfortable job where they’d have to work with “less idiots”.

The arguments in this debate are the same, and he urges people to vote for his amendment to shut Urafirth.

Allison Duncan endorses “everything Dr Wills has said”. This is a “gutless council, you’re cowards – you can’t take tha hard decisions”. For Councillor Smith, vice-chairman, to take opposite view, and councillor Fox not supporting his leader, I think they should resign.

1.19pm – education committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart doesn’t see any appetite to vote for closure of Urafirth, so makes no motion. But Jonathan Wills moves to shut it. 

Wishart – “absolutely no appetite from any member” at committee yesterday for shutting Urafirth.

1.18pm – Cooper’s amendment wins by 12 votes to 9, so North Roe stays open.

Those who voted in favour of closure: Malcolm Bell, Allison Duncan, Gary Robinson, Davie Sandison, Cecil Smith, Amanda Hawick-Westlake, Jonathan Wills, Allan Wishart and Vaila Wishart. 

The dozen who voted to keep it open: Mark Burgess, Peter Campbell, Gary Cleaver, Alastair Cooper, Steven Coutts, Billy Fox, Robert Henderson, Andrea Manson, Frank Robertson, George Smith, Theo Smith and Michael Stout.

1.15pm – Jonathan Wills sums up for his motion. Kids on the bus will be talking to pals, making social connections on school buses. It’s true they’ll spend more time sitting on buses, but at present they don’t have enough people for a five-a-side football team. Not just in PE but in the playground, that’s very important as well. 

Cooper says there will be additional transport costs, but he doesn’t specify them. Nobody has ever suggested “showering a largesse of nice things on other schools”, as Cleaver claimed, that is absurd mischaracterisation. Education is still our number one priority. We spend £48.5m on it.

Schools being under threat is a bad thing – very good point. “Let’s get it over with,” Wills says. The report is a considered long-term view. Small schools “can be a wonderful thing… they can also be a nightmare” – Haroldswick closed “by parental demand”. Ollaberry will still be a very small school by national standards; all the schools are excellent, that’s not an issue. 

One school for 800+ population seems reasonable. Services, with possible exception of Norway, in remote areas are better than anywhere else in Europe. We didn’t hear from Andrea or any other critics – what alternatives for saving? They don’t have any. “Well-meaning waffle.”

Wills concludes: it’s better for this council to be solvent when we go to the polls in 2017 rather than popular.

1.08pm – Alastair Cooper summing up the case for his amendment. He points out one argument in favour of shutting North Roe was removing a transition between nursery and primary, but if Urafirth keeps its nursery that benefit will be lost.

Community works together, the older folk get to see what the bairns are doing.

North Roe got an “excellent” inspection result, the first ever in Shetland, under the current teacher. Moving onto finance, and the “vexed question” of transport. Journey can’t be done in 30 minutes; it’s consistently over 40 minutes with primary bairns. I think it’s an entirely different thing from secondary bairns. 

The health impact is negative, Cooper continues. The number of times we’re subjecting communities to these quite stressful occasions, there is health impacts and they’re not properly quantified.

Socioeconomic – if we close the school we’re obliged to go in and do things to help the community stand on its own two feet. We have no money in capital programme for social housing in North Roe; no money for grants. 

“The economic cost of closing the North Roe school will be swamped by the cost of propping up the community if we do so.”

Sullom Voe Terminal is at a crossroads: prospect of it going until 2050; we have the gas plant as well, prospect of lots of jobs and continuity of jobs in the area. Places like North Roe, with the right support and environment, could give folk good quality of life.

We’ve had two quotes from history. “History can very often be rewritten… but you can’t change geography. The topography of Northmavine will remain the same as it is today.” Three communities with own distinct identity, and the only economic activity in North Roe is the school. Council’s corporate plan – have to change to make services more efficient but “we will do that with the people, not to them”. Give a period of stability, work with them and ask them to make sure North Roe is a thriving community not facing this spectacle again.

12.59pm – Billy Fox says North Roe differs from South Mainland communities in that it is “at the end of the road”, and economic effects must be considered. 

After being saved in 2011, back under threat a year later – do you expect the community to regenerate with that hanging over its head? No, says Fox. Logical concusion, if we didn’t support these outlying areas – we could take all the people off Fair Isle, Foula, Papa Stour… let’s be realistic about this, we have to support these communities. I’ll be supporting keeping the school open.

12.55pm – Vaila Wishart: I’m glad this isn’t the chair’s report, because I can’t get away from my original feeling about numbers at North Roe. It’s depopulation which leads to consultation on school closures. What keeps people in particular areas is jobs and access to work, and lots of people now commute in Shetland.

Communities can be revived without schools, Wishart says – look at amount of house-building in Quarff, and people quite happy to attend school in Cunningsburgh. 

She highlights possibility of mixing with more people of same age, something that outweights “half an hour each way” journey time. It wouldn’t just benefit North Roe, it would benefit Ollaberry as well having more children in each class, she adds.

12.53pm – Allan Wishart, it is evident that if we continue to keep squeezing all the budgets there will be a decrease in quality of education. We set budgets with some fanfare… then insist on officials meeting those budgets but take away the means of doing so.

If all the schools are kept open, we will suffer a decline in service throughout Shetland as we tried to spread a smaller, thinner budget more widely.

Questions whether some councillors are looking for short term popularity rather than taking long term responsible decisions. Invitations to visit rural remote schools, and it would serve the councillors well to visit, for instance, Bell’s Brae and see how they manage on an “ever-reducing, squeezed financial straitjacket”.

12.50pm – Campbell points to Robinson comments that North Roe had reached “point of no return”. If that was the case it’d be a “damning indictment” of the council, but he isn’t so pessimistic.

He says we should take word of veteran John Jamieson, former councillor: we should provide the schools and let Northmavine parents provide the bairns, Campbell says.

12.48pm – George Smith thinks the position Audrey Edwards has taken is a reasonable one. The committee, however, felt socioeconomic & transport impacts were more important for North Roe, aspects council has to consider. I’m minded to respect the decision of the committee, but requires a serious look at what we’re asking our officers to do. “We’re not being fair to them.”

12.47pm – Robert Henderson on the cost of consultations. That pales into insignificance compared to what’s been spent on the new AHS without even starting to build it.

Refers to previous attempt to close Cullivoe when five pupils – they’re a two-teacher school now, and populations / rolls go up and down.

Asks members to support Cooper’s amendment.

12.44pm – Andrea Manson thinks small schools are “wonderful”, with the attention compared to being “lost” in a class of 25. School rolls dip occasionally – North Roe not long ago was a two-teacher school.

Roll here will rise to at least 11 in five years – well-educated, confident, happy children, with wonderful learning opportunities. The £30,000 we intend to spend on maintenance for redecoration, I’m quite sure we can do that for a fraction of the cost. You could do the entire town hall for that, never mind a small school.

Closure would take away motivation for families to want to live in the area with their children attending a fantastic school, Manson continues. Four new houses built in last five years, two for social rented sector and two others, both people with children – the next generation starting to come home, stay in the area, invest their money, time and effort. 

The community is anxious. It’s not “a” key thing, it’s the “only key thing in the area” to encourage young people to come and stay. A little bit of care, weekly refuse collection, much-reduced gritting… we do next to nothing for North Roe and Lochend, Manson says.

There’s no money to regenerate if we “rip the heart out of the community”. The saving is only £69,000 – I’m quite sure that’ll soon be gobbled up by extra transport costs, constant repairs to school buildings. Remote offices? I don’t think so. No business is likely to go there. “We’re storing up trouble for the future by closing this – trust me.”

12.40pm – Allison Duncan rehearses his experience of closures in the South Mainland 40 years ago – a “very wise decision made by councillors at that time”. I’ve spoken to many then pupils, parents now, in all five communities – Bigton, Levenwick, Boddam, Quendale and Virkie – and a substantial number will make it quite clear it’s the best thing that ever happened in the south mainland. 

In Moray a politician resigned calling his colleagues “cowards” over failure to take difficult decisions over closures, Da Flea says. “We have to bite the bullet, and I’ll be quite honest with you – we should be closing more schools to make the required savings, and I’ll always go down that route because it benefits the children.”

12.35pm – Gary Cleaver, the issue of North Roe aside, quite puzzled why “it’s put about that somehow closing one school will shower a largesse of nice things onto other schools – that isn’t going to happen”.

We need to think of the wider picture, how we pursue our priorities. Education was our number one priority, it shaped our medium term financial plan. If education is still our number one it should continue to shape that.

With North Roe, in particular, “it’s a confidence thing” – they’ve been under threat of closure for years. Young families – if local provision is under threat they’re going to look to move somewhere else: “I suspect there will be a lot more pressure on Lerwick housing when they come for somewhere to live, work and send their bairns”. Areas won’t generate if they’re “constantly under the cosh” – we can help create the environment for them to get on, and he’ll be supporting Cooper’s amendment. 

12.31pm – Now Alastair Cooper’s amendment to keep North Roe open. In terms of the schools, one of benefits of North Roe is the majority of bairns walk or go with push bike, on a rainy day the parents run them to school. When bairns go on school bus their interaction with parents ceases.

Coming back to transport, I accept entirelty what Elaine said – she was quite right and precise, basing her advice on the operator transporting secondary bairns. I have no reason to doubt the operator was giving a true account. But at education committee yesterday, she correctly advised that smaller kids have to be accommodated in a booster seat, and the driver has to open the side door for bairns to get in.

Cooper questions the 3-minute stop to pick up each child. Taking North Roe and Lochend bairns to Ollaberry in one vehicle, you could do it within 40 minutes. But add in Collafirth and Swinister, and I think you’re struggling. Michael Craigie did it in 42 minutes, and I was with him. On Friday we were over the 40 minutes. In 2011, I along with 11 councillors did it in 45 minutes. To come to this limit you’ll have additional costs.

12.26pm – Wills says interesting facts: council has spent £640,000 on blueprint and various refreshes. It is about education, and it is also about money. “People are not happy with what we’ve got to do; it’s not popular, but we came here to get this council’s finances back under control.”

Twenty nine primaries and 17 are very small one-teacher schools. We are quite a long way from our goal of becoming sustainable. Quite rightly, in view of past failures, we’re still under surveillance from the Accounts Commission. It appears from yesterday’s decision there is quite a lot of evidence that committee is no longer committed to the goal we agreed when they visited Shetland in 2010.

Education staff have told us they can’t continue to provide a full normal service on a declining budget, Wills continues. I had a letter last night following Bell’s Brae Parent Council meeting expressing serious concern about all schools in Shetland – due to financial pressures, head teacher is struggling to ensure pupils receive level of support they require. 

Dismissal of recommendations of council staff would be an “unfortunate signal”, the parent council says. When it comes to amalgamation, we’ve got 30 pupils and 180 places in Northmavine, Wills says.

If we go on putting this off, I assure you the Accounts Commission will be back. If we endorse this decision, I frankly wouldn’t be sorry to see them back because someone is going to have to sort this out.

Report answers “understandable worries”, including over transport times. Wills accepts findings of report by education experts, and asks councillors to support his motion.

12.21pm – Jonathan Wills. Moves in terms of the original report to education committee to shut North Roe. Seconded by education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart.

Alastair Cooper amendment to keep North Roe open as agreed at committee; seconded by Andrea Manson.

12.18pm – Gary Robinson. “We don’t do bad schools”, but it is about maintaining standards in challenging circumstances. Lengthy discussion about travel times – officers are “confident” the travel can be accommodated within 40 minutes. In addition to transport, heating, lighting schools has a carbon cost – albeit with exception of Urafirth with its turbine. But keeping lights on in schools built for 50 pupils is “hugely expensive” both in money and environmental terms. 

Onto the view that schools are key in attracting population. In that case, why in past 30 years such a decline in these areas if schools really are the key, Robinson asks. Commuting isn’t cheap, and that is one of the biggest barriers to living in a rural area.

Great education system – we should be proud of it, we get excellent results. But it isn’t built on strong financial foundations. A gap of about £19m in income for education and what we actually spend. My view is that gap needs to close. We spend every last penny that comes into the reserves, that £10m goes into education to supplement what we get, and then a further £9m that arguably comes at the expense of other services within the council.

Trade union Unison predicts Scotland yet to see 60% of cuts inflicted south of the border. We can’t ignore that, Robinson says. Education minister Mike Russell has conceded things are going to be difficult “because we didn’t vote for independence”. 

Services fall where there is an economic rationale, Robinson says. But there is an economic bottom line which is real and must be considered. Professional advice of officials is that children would receive a better education – if I’m hearing from professionals that education would be better if we closes chools such as North Roe, I find that hard to ignore, he adds.

12.14pm – After two hours on her feet at the lectern, convener Malcolm Bell thanks Audrey Edwards and other officials for their attention to detail as they were quizzed by officials. With no further questions, we’re on to the debate.

Allison Duncan asks for a roll call vote at the end, and no-one demurs.

Gary Robinson says it was an excellent report, and he thanks everyone for standard of debate about closure proposals. 

12.09pm – Councillor Wills: could cuts include less cleaning, more pressure on head teachers, maybe even no swimming lessons, or if these schools stay open will they still have exactly the same resources they have now?

Edwards: the type of matters that you mention would be the kind of things we would go back to across all of our schools.

Councillor Cooper points out North Roe got first “excellent” in an HMIe inspection in Shetland a few years ago, under previous inspection regime.

12.07pm – Gary Cleaver wants to know about benchmarking. “Oh how we like benchmarking”, he says. Where does Shetland stand in relation to other Scottish authorities wit the cost of its primary education per pupil cost?

Education official Shona Manson: For year 2012/13, Western Isles cost per pupil £8,516; Orkney £8,132; Shetland £8,527. National average is £4,751. The disparity compared to other islands in primary education spending is relatively small, whereas there is a much bigger gap in secondary spending.

11.59am – Back on the disputed topic of travel times. Elaine Park, SIC transport official, repeats her view that North Roe-Ollaberry journey can be done within 40 minutes.

Edwards – Scotland has more peerie schools than other areas of Britain. OFSTED, the English inspectorate, considers a small school as 150 or fewer and a very small school as 50 or fewer pupils in it. On remote isles we provide education for bairns that are there. If we can pursue bringing children together in a more viable cohort of bairns of similar age, we would seek to do that wherever we could.

Is it posible to have shared heads and a cluster school arrangement, Mark Burgess asks. Current model for shared management, in financial terms, is one that teaching unions were strong on and wanted someone with management responsibility on the premises when head teacher wasn’t there. Quite an expensive model.

11.49am – deputy leader Billy Fox asks what were major factors determining having Ollaberry as the receiving school. Informal consultation carried out with the three parent councils, setting out list of criteria. Edwards: “safe to say that caused a lot of upset, challenges to the information that we had and different parent councils that were questioning why another parent council had put a particular criteria forward. It wasn’t a very easy process to work our way through”. 

It was children’s services diretor Helen Budge’s professional opinion, following that process, that Ollaberry should receive pupils from North Roe and Urafirth were they to shut.

11.45am – Davie Sandison now. With status quo, when would Ollaberry become a two-teacher school? Our projections are always three years in advance, so 15/16, 16/17, 17/18 – the community information we have, and nursery projections suggest, that in 18/19 Ollaberry tips into being a two-teacher school on its own. Projected rolls are notorious for changing as folk move about.

If an outcome where North Roe was likely to be transferred to Ollaberry, what would that mean? Edwards: when we wrote the proposal paper the projection was August 2015. Since then, there is one less family there now which has changed that projection so in August 2015, if only North Roe primary closed Ollaberry for 15/16 – on current information – would still be a one-teacher school and would be two-teacher in 16/17. So you’d have additional savings for one year.

11.40am – Cooper asking about classroom sizes. Size of rooms in North Roe means you could have 68 pupils, two composite classes of 50. Urafirth, based on 1.7 square metres and size of two classrooms, 26 bairns in each, is 52 but maximum class size is 25. In Ollaberry there are three big spaces: you take one for nursery and have two left – if maximum class sizes, 25 bairns in each space, says Edwards.

11.27am – Alastair Cooper wants to “get to the bottom of” why the community planning partnership did not respond to the consultation on closures. “We’ve been failed in this chamber by a party which I thought we were working with,” he says.

11.22am – Andrea Manson, when speaking about school swimming – how much would that cost the council if we paid the entrance fee at the door? In terms of SRT agreement there is more work to do, but an estimated saving of about £150,000 if we were to stop completely. For all usage we should be paying about £80,000 a year for dry side and swimming based on child entrance fee. Adult entrance fee, would be more like £160,000. Our current agreement with SRT, we pay just over £300,000. 

Manson – so the education budget is subsidising the swimming pools to the tune of at least £140,000 a year? Yes, you could say that. “There’s a saving we could make immediately,” she says.

Finance staff points out charitable trust – which funds the SRT’s leisure centres – can’t be seen to be subsidising the cost of providing education, so it is an additional cost.

11.18am – Theo Smith is asking about the number of school computers. There are a high number in schools, but some of them don’t work, and central government funding for IT is falling. “Historical generosity” being phased out, and much more use of handheld devices being used. Some schools taking part in pilots to introduce better and smarter technology.

11.14am – Lerwick North member Allan Wishart asks what capacity of each Northmavine school is. We now allow 1.7 square metres in school for primary, and using that new metric for North Roe space for 68 pupils, operating at 7-8% capacity; Urafirth 52 pupils, at 25% capacity; Ollaberry, depending how you configure school, space for 59 pupils, meaning about 24% occupied. Wishart – that means we have about 30 pupils but capacity for about 180.

11.10am – Amanda Hawick-Westlake asks how schools service would reduce costs, how it would affect resources available at schools in Lerwick, for instance.. Edwards – we have done a lot of work since 2009/10 to make efficiencies, a huge amount of work. We can’t say anything other than we’d have to go back to that, in some of the areas mentioned (below) – I can’t say we’d do this particular thing or that particular thing until we go back. We are “quite a lean service” and head teachers are “quite battle-weary” and “concerned for the future if we have to take more from them.

Hawick-Westlake. When it comes to the point that the schools are having to do their own fundraising for materials, it’s a poor show. “They’ve been doing that in the country for years, Amanda” says Andrea Manson.

11.05am – Smith on staffing ratio. Schools in the South Mainland either have or have recently had composite classes of up to 25? That’s right.

His fellow South Mainland member Allison Duncan offers “warmest congratulations” for officials’ work. My question is about efficiencies. If these proposals are not backed, can you put “more meat on the bones” of alternative efficiencies?

Edwards – a further review of support staff in schools, clerical and administrative. Smaller efficiencies on mileage, expenses that we think we’re able to do. Looking at further efficiencies in budgets for people with additional support needs; further efficiencies within secondary teaching staff; catering and cleaning review which we hope will yield savings. Other things we’ve considered in the past – and I wouldn’t like people to think I’m saying that’s definitely going to happen – things like swimming instruction, ending that service; looking back at management structures in secondaries, numbers of principal teaching posts, role of depute heads.

11.02am – Peter Campbell “very impressed” with the knowledge-at-fingertips of staff about the number of computers working/not working in a variety of schools. He is therefore confident they can advise: are all children of nursery school age in the catchment areas of Ollaberry, North Roe and Urafirth currently attending Urafirth nursery? Edwards: I think this year they are, yes.

Councillor George Smith, vice-chairman of education and families committee, following on from Wills asking where savings would come from if these schools remain open. If this council felt it was not possible, or in the best interests, that it could revisit its budget strategy and reprioritise its spending?

Robinson – it is an absolute requirement that the Scottish Government pays for education in all local authority areas. We have a huge disparity between what we receive – in 2012/13 we received £29.5m from Holyrood for all aspects of education from nursery to higher/further education, and spent £48.5m. It would be “extremely difficult” to revisit that when we have an ageing population that we need to provide for.

“I think we need to strike a balance – if there are further savings they need to come from education, that’s my personal opinion.”

10.57am – North Isles member Gary Cleaver asks about the “population ratio” around each school. Tommy Coutts of economic development, 2011 census figures show Urafirth catchment area 290 people; North Roe 144 people. Lerwick’s total population is around 6,570 or thereabouts. Gulberwick would increase that figure.

“I don’t think we can possibly compare North Roe with Sound or Lerwick, really,” says Cleaver, responding to Wills’ earlier questioning.

He is still not clear where staff savings materialise if those staff are redeployed on the same terms and conditions elsewhere in Shetland.

Edwards says it would be one two-teacher schools (if North Roe and Urafirth are shut). Otherwise you’d have two two-teacher schools and one single-teacher school in Northmavine.

Legislation allows for “spare” head teachers can be moved into a vacant head teacher post, so you save the old salary. If we can’t do that, and there’s no suitable vacancies, we offer a class teacher post and national teachers’ T&Cs require their salary to be conserved for three years, along with expenses to travel to their new school for a period of four years. There is a central pot of money to cover those “conservation” costs.

10.51am – How much staff time on “repeated failed attempts” to devise a “more rational and economical” plan for delivering education? It must be about ten years, Wills says.

First work was in 2002, says Edwards. By 2008/9 a dedicated cost centre was established. The actual spend including this year is just short of £640,000.

Robinson asks about health impact assessment – is the advice saying it will be negative any different from advice, e.g. on Olnafirth or Bressay (which have been shut)? Edwards – it’s quite similar. Partly carried out in consultation done independently of us with parents and affected families. 

Robinson – there’s nothing that can’t be mitigated against, and in fact if the five kdis in North Roe were in a big cohort, for example, being able to play team games would mitigate against negative impacts, e.g. not being able to walk to school anymore.

10.45am – Edwards finishes her presentation and is ready to take questions. Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills, a consistent advocate of school closures in recent years, praises her informative report and is “even more puzzled” that the education committee voted to ignore their own staff and Education Scotland yesterday. 

Wills asks for per pupil cost of primary education, which – unsurprisingly – is three times more expensive in the three Northmavine schools than in the larger Lerwick primaries of Bell’s Brae and Sound. 

If amalgamation is not agreed, where would the £156,000 savings come from, Wills asks. Edwards says schools staff would have to look at making further efficiencies across all schools in Shetland.

Would we end up cutting back on teaching materials? That would be one of our further options, if we could do any more with respect to learning materials and equipment, Edwards replies. 

10.35am – More on the isles’ two Lib Dem parliamentarians for all possible school closures in Shetland to be scrapped – Carmichael, the Scottish Secretary, says: “I do not normally intervene in council business. They have a difficult and often thankless job to do. Sometimes, however, the issue is just too important to be silent. This is one of those times. Despite a lengthy consultation period I believe that the current proposals remain flawed and that it would be a mistake to proceed with them.

“In particular, closing schools that will require daily travel by sea by children remains part of the proposals. I simply fail to see how this can be anything other than stressful and disruptive to the education of children at what are some of the most important points in their education.

“Shetland’s education is something of which we should all be proud. The council should now seek to move forward with a coherent education vision that can command the confidence and support of the community. There are many challenges that face us living in the Northern Isles. The fact that we give a first class education to our children is one of our greatest strengths. It is something of which we should be proud and in which we should only contemplate change if it will lead to improvement.”

10.28am – Audrey Edwards, who was praised for setting the cordial tone of debate yesterday, is rehearsing her presentation to the education and families committee, a summary of which you can read in yesterday’s live blog.

10.20am – Education committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart relays yesterday’s decision not to discontinue education at Urafirth and North Roe to the Full Council. Now we will hear from education official Audrey Edwards on the subject.

Proposed closure of North Roe primary, Urafirth primary & nursery is part of phase two of education blueprint proposals.

The education blueprint has already had a chequered history, proving deeply unpopular within the affected communities, and the latest blow comes in the form of statements from Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael and MSP Tavish Scott, welcoming yesterday’s decision and calling on the SIC to halt any further closure plans. It comes less than 24 hours after SNP list MSP Mike MacKenzie called for a five-year moratorium.

In a joint letter addressed to SIC leader Gary Robinson, Scott describes the prospect of further closures as “intensely damaging right across Shetland”. The local authority has made good progress towards a stable financial position and has “already made significant savings” in education, he says.

“Shetland education needs to concentrate on the quality of education, vocational routes into work and putting the right structure in place,” Scott writes. “That work will be easier if there is no damaging and divisive closure consultation hanging over pupils, parents and schools. There is also a huge impact on SIC education officials and teachers and that needs tos top.”

It is perhaps the most notable intervention in council affairs by the two Liberal Democrats since the David Clark era at Lerwick Town Hall. It will be interesting to see how Robinson – who yesterday noted the yawning gap between the money government pays it to provide education and its actual spending – will react to their intervention.

10.16am – Council leader Gary Robinson offers his apologies and says it was a “regrettable incident”, but commends the officials for the work they have done to remedy the situation.

North Mainland councillor Andrea Manson wants to know if we will find out more about “how exactly it occurred” – everything we put on the internet would need to be checked. “Are we going to hear anything more about it or is this the end of it?” she asks.

Riise says the report is as detailed as it requires to be, and identifies specifically how errors were made. “I would have to say that that’s the conclusion of this matter for the council.”

North Mainland councillor Alastair Cooper believes it has happened because of the “excessive pressure that staff are having to work under”, trying to meet timescales to meet consultation deadlines. If we learn anything out of this, we need to have proper checks and balances in place.

Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills says it was “regrettable”, but a “well-intentioned effort to ensure there was the widest possible” publication of people’s views and opinions, and there was no “malign intention” behind it? Robinson and convener Malcolm Bell agree.

10.10am – Jan Riise addresses councillors in his role as monitoring officer regarding a “breach of an enactment”. On 19 September information was published on the SIC website including personal information relating to the Urafirth school closure consultation – that was identified early by staff and remedial action was taken. The following weekend further representations were made to the council, as a result of which chief executive Mark Boden.

Read our previous coverage of the story here:

It was identified that there had been a breach of data protection, and Boden recommended changing procedures for publish information relating to school consultations. Riise commends the department’s “prompt actions in seeking to remedy the breach, thereby reducing the exposure to further complaints or claims”. He does not think there is any need for councillors to take a decision, other than to improve the council’s future handling of personal information.

Riise has set out a nine-point action plan. He feels the original apology issue was not sufficient for everyone who complained, and suggests he will write to others affected.

Councillors have no questions for Mr Riise. 


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