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Opinion: beginning to see the light?

CONGRATULATIONS are due after last week’s decision not just to keep open the two closure-threatened primaries in Northmavine, but also to abandon the consultations on closing Sandness and Burravoe.

At last it seems that Shetland Islands Council has got the message that people in these islands do not want to lose their rural primaries. It’s just a shame that it took 12 years.

A small minority of councillors are calling for some kind of inquiry into last week’s decision. If any such inquiry does take place, it should examine why the SIC has wasted so much of its officers’ valuable time on a policy that was doomed from the very start.

It is shocking that the SIC has spent at least £1 million, as Jonathan Wills correctly calculates, in a failed attempt to save money, but it is outrageous that a democratically elected local authority has persecuted some of its most vulnerable communities in this way.

How can councillors expect places like North Roe or Sandness to regenerate if the communities’ reward for beating off repeated attempts to shut their schools is to face yet another round of heart-sapping consultation?

We trust the council has finally abandoned this destructive approach once and for all.

As to secondary education, why is the council consulting on closing junior high schools when there is even greater community resistance to this idea? Even when it comes to removing fourth year from the rural junior highs, this is surely the wrong time to consult. It puts the cart before the horse.

As Gary Robinson suggests, and other councillors agree, first build the new Anderson High School and design the Shetland Learning Partnership and then hold a genuine, open and transparent consultation with pupils, parents, teachers and communities about the best and most affordable way forward.

SIC leader Gary Robinson is seeking talks with the Scottish Government. If education minister Mike Russell (centre) is opposed to school closures he ought to provide a financial package enabling the council to keep them open.

A genuine consultation involves going out and inviting people to come up with their thoughts and ideas, before drawing up a proposal based on those contributions – a process we shall hopefully see with the Smith Commission on devolution.

In contrast, the past 12 years of schools consultation has seen the council dressing up a money-saving exercise as being about “educational benefit”. Is it any wonder it has gained no traction?

It is good to see the SIC now raising Shetland’s difficulties with the Scottish government. This new common sense approach has already paid dividends in funding an affordable high school for Lerwick – let’s see what it might deliver for education outside the town too.

Education minister Mike Russell appears to be opposed to closures, so he ought to come up with a financial package enabling the council to keep them open.

Meanwhile the community has got the message loud and clear that Shetland’s public sector must live within its means, that central funding is getting tighter and our social care costs for an ageing population will keep increasing.

Yet we are a very wealthy community in the middle of an economic boom. Surely in this time of plenty, we can find ways to support our high quality schools during these difficult times of transition.

If Shetland can raise hundreds of thousands of pounds every year for cancer charities, imagine what it could do for its children’s education – for instance, to ease the burden on the council to maintain school buildings.

But first of all we need to feel like we are all working together, and that feeling is exactly what these school consultations threatened to destroy.

Pete Bevington, Shetland News