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SIC “flouting law” on school closures

Scottish Rural Schools Network chairman Sandy Longmuir

SHETLAND Islands Council has been accused of “flouting the law” in an attempt to avoid a legally binding moratorium on closing two local schools for five years.

On Wednesday the SIC said it would not publish the results of its consultation into closing or ending S4 education at the junior high schools on the islands of Yell and Whalsay, which it has decided to leave as they are.

The move, it believes, would allow it to consult again within two years or less on closing the two schools, despite new legislation that stops further consultations for five years.

The council’s behavior has infuriated Scottish Rural Schools Network chairman Sandy Longmuir, who has now written to Scottish education secretary Angela Constance asking her to clarify the legal position.

“I am absolutely appalled by the shameful conduct of Shetland Islands Council with regards to the amendments to the School (Consultation) Act,” Longmuir said.

Meanwhile the two parent councils are planning to write to the SIC questioning this week’s decision, after an extended consultation produced more than 700 written responses.

Mid Yell parent council chairman John Irvine said: “The parents and the community have already gone through the stress of the consultation, which the council extended from six to 12 weeks.

“If this new act has any backbone at all it should be protecting us from another go at this.”

The council had wanted to hold off consulting on the future of secondary education in the isles until 2017, when Lerwick’s new Anderson High School should be completed.

However education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart said a new consultation could proceed even earlier if the council’s finances were under too much pressure.

The SIC believes that by simply not publishing its final consultation report it can avoid the legal requirement for a five year moratorium.

Yet Longmuir, who advised the government on the legislation, said: “The law is absolutely clear and once you have gone down that road, there is no opting out.

“The council must produce that consultation report and now they have made the decision not to proceed they must have a moratorium.

“This was to stop communities having to go for years with a threat to people’s jobs or whether to sent their children to the school.

“Now the council is saying they may go ahead again in another two years or less. This is cynical beyond belief, and the legislation was designed to stop councils from doing exactly what they have done.”

In his letter to the cabinet secretary, Longmuir adds: “This flouting of the law is only the latest incarnation which shows what they (the council) are capable of.

“Many people now question whether these people are fit to serve the public. This is both from the aspects of competency and their attitude to legislation.”

Speaking on BBC Radio Shetland, education manager Audrey Edwards defended the council’s actions, saying they had followed legal advice at all times.

“As with any report we put to committee, we sought legal advice from legal services and they were absolutely clear that we could put forward the report,” she said.

Edwards also admitted that officers had taken the decision not to publish the consultation document before it was presented to the committee, as they assumed councillors would be unlikely to vote for the proposals for change following previous votes not to close primary schools in Urafirth and North Roe and to cancel consultations on closing Sandness and Burravoe.