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Cautious welcome as SIC freezes school closures

Education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart.

A LERWICK councillor’s attempt to introduce fresh consultations on shutting three secondary school departments in Shetland has been defeated by a resounding 16-3 margin.

Jonathan Wills put forward a plan to begin consulting on either shutting or reducing provision at Aith, Baltasound and Sandwick junior highs – with a view to saving around £2 million a year – at a meeting of Shetland Islands Council on Wednesday morning.

But members overwhelmingly backed education committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart’s motion to call a halt to all closure proposals until 2017 – unless the SIC’s 2016/17 financial settlement is worse than expected.

Campaign group Communities United for Rural Education (CURE) has cautiously welcomed the outcome, saying the postponement “at least provides a break for beleaguered rural communities”.

The wording of the decision, in relation to Mid Yell, Whalsay and Baltasound secondaries, states that consultations will be carried out “at a future date to be agreed”.

Having carried out full public consultations on Mid Yell and Whalsay in late 2014, had the SIC published a report and then voted against closure it would have triggered five-year moratoriums before the plans could be revisited.

Wishart explained that a recent policy forum advised it was “better to call a halt rather than proceed to the report stage” to avert a moratorium.

That has irritated parent councils in Mid Yell and Whalsay. They believe not granting a moratorium, after hundreds of people took part in the consultation, “at the very least goes against the spirit of the law”. They feel the whole process has been “unprofessional and badly managed”.

Hundreds of protesters marched against the proposed closures last summer. Photo: Shetnews

A joint statement from the parent councils issued on Wednesday asked: “Are we really saying that this process will now produce no report, no recommendations and that this highly expensive process could start again within two years and, according to the head of education in a letter to Tavish Scott, sooner if financial constraints require it?”

During today’s meeting in Lerwick Town Hall, Wills said the council had gone through a “bizarre 18-year process” of endless consultations on shutting junior highs. Councillors kept getting the best advice from education professionals and overthrowing it “because people don’t like it”.

“This is not a democracy where decisions are taken by mass meetings, placards and demonstrations,” Wills said. “This is a representative democracy. We are elected to take decisions – sometimes very unpalatable ones – and if people don’t like it they can chuck us out in 2017.”

He urged councillors to initiate consultations beginning with Baltasound in August, followed by Aith and Sandwick in October, to “end the uncertainty, and stop wasting staff time and our hard-pressed budget on this endless, pointless procrastination”.

Ending secondary education in Whalsay and Yell made “no sense whatsoever”, though, and Wills – who intends to stand down at the next election – felt they ought to be removed from the process altogether.

Wishart’s alternative, Wills continued, “leaves open renewed consultation on Mid Yell and Symbister- it’s merely postponed, leaving all the anxiety and opposition just festering”.

Wishart said she had “a degree of sympathy” with Wills, but his suggestions were “made mainly from a financial perspective”. “I don’t think either [solution] brings an end to uncertainty,” she told councillors.

It is “a time of tremendous change” to how education is delivered, and the public “need more time to digest the implications”, while the new Anderson High School’s completion will “make those changes much easier to implement”.

“We have time to try and persuade people that these developments are in the best interests of our young folk,” Wishart continued, “and that is what we must do.”

“We may need to revisit this decision sooner than 2017,” she warned, “because we don’t know what the 2016/17 financial settlement is going to be. In the meantime I think we have a majority view that consultations should cease for the time being.”

Lerwick councillor Jonathan Wills: "This is not a democracy where decisions are taken by mass meetings, placards and demonstrations. This is a representative democracy."

South Mainland councillor George Smith reaffirmed her stance, describing it as a “pragmatic and sensible approach”.

He said consultations had shown “overwhelming opposition” to closure within the affected communities.

“There’s a consistent message coming back to us as councillors – we have not made the educational case for change, and it’s all about saving money,” Smith said.

In the next two years, he hopes the schools service will focus on embedding the curriculum for excellence, developing the Shetland Learning Partnership and getting the “exciting” new AHS built – adding he is “sure there will be pupils who will be desperate to attend it”.

Smith added: “I have confidence in the people of Shetland that we will achieve an agreeable way forward – a strategy for education rather than a blueprint for school closures.”

Questioning of officials revealed that since 2008 the blueprint for education has now cost £666,000.

The SIC recently set a balanced budget for the first time since the 1990s, but further spending cuts lie ahead. Officials told members that the schools service needed to find £2.5 million a year of savings between 2016 and 2020.

North Mainland councillor Drew Ratter said he favoured “getting rid of this obsession with bricks and mortar”. But this council has been “squeamish” about closures since 2012, and the notion that members will “suddenly develop an appetite for behaving rationally” come 2017 was “a bit of a chimera, really”.

Wills won the support of only Ratter and Allison Duncan. Allan Wishart abstained and the other 15 councillors sided with Wishart’s motion.

A joint statement from parent councils in Aith, Baltasound, Mid Yell, Sandwick and Whalsay expressed gratitude to some councillors for the hard work they put into achieving “this temporary halt”.

“We hope that the next few years will be used to develop a long term strategy for education in Shetland that responds to the rural nature of our islands and that looks for solutions which are more innovative than one ‘super secondary’.”

CURE says it will take down its road signs for now, but will remain  “for the time being, but will remain "vigilant and united in our scrutiny of future proposals”.

The parent councils expressed thanks to teachers for “the fine work they do in such difficult circumstances” and to the “hundreds of parents and pupils who have supported us”.

In a separate statement, CURE said it would take down its roadside signs around the islands “for the time being, but will remain vigilant and united in our scrutiny of future proposals”.

CURE feels the blueprint for education has been “characterised by misinformation about pupil comparisons and exaggerated savings along with silence about the successful delivery of curriculum for excellence with consistently good exam results from junior highs”.

“A new Anderson High should be a cause for celebration across Shetland,” its statement continued. “Unfortunately, however, it is being used as a reason for closing junior highs.

“Through petitions, marches and formal consultation responses, thousands and thousands of Shetlanders have repeatedly voiced their opposition to the proposed downgrading of junior highs.

“This has involved raising thousands of pounds and countless hours of voluntary work. The paper passed today just promised ‘more of the same closure-driven thinking’.”