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SIC to abandon island school closure plans

Symbister junior high school on Whalsay will keep its secondary pupils assuming councillors back officers' recommendations to retain S1-4 on the island.

SHETLAND Islands Council has acknowledged that it has to address “poor perceptions” of its schools service after officials recommended abandoning plans to cut pupil numbers at junior high schools on Yell and Whalsay.

The consultation report, published on Thursday, 20 months after the process began, reveals almost unanimous rejection of proposals to reduce or remove secondary education from the two islands.

The report highlights both communities’ “anger, mistrust and resentment” at the proposals, along with views that education officers had been “incompetent, useless and less than honest”.

The long drawn out consultation was part of an overall attempt by the council to cut its education budget by around £3 million as part of the authority’s desperate bid to save money across the board.

Efforts to portray the proposals as being primarily of educational value under the new Curriculum for Excellence were roundly rejected by both communities.

On Yell 381 people responded to the two proposals to either transfer S4 pupils alone, or the entire secondary department, to Lerwick’s Anderson High School.

Of those just two people agreed with the transfer of S4 pupils, and one with the transfer of the secondary department.

On Whalsay 350 responded, with two agreeing to the S4 proposal and no one agreeing to the other one.

The schools service had highlighted the educational value of being taught at a single school, with bigger classes offering more teachers, subjects and fellow pupils.

There was also the financial benefit of saving between £150,000 and £300,000 a year on Yell and between £130,000 and £440,000 on Whalsay.

In response, islanders pointed out the threat to family and community life along with the high quality of the existing service.

They also accused the council of being driven predominantly by the desire to save money and centralise services around Lerwick.

Education Scotland, the Scottish government’s education department, said that while the proposals had merit, more thought should have been given to the health and wellbeing of the pupils and their communities.

They also stressed the need for the council to lift the uncertainty hanging over pupils, staff and parents by making a decision and sticking to it, pointing out that Mid Yell had been threatened with closure for the past 10 years.

This has been acknowledged by the schools service, who have recommended to the education and families committee that both proposals be abandoned when they meet on 9 June.

Reflecting on the community response, the report says: “There were very strong views expressed in response to both proposals…Feelings of anger, mistrust and resentment come across clearly.

“Coupled with this there is undiluted criticism of the central service in some of the responses.

“Views are expressed that officers are incompetent, useless and less than honest.

“In thinking about how Shetland Islands Council moves forward with consideration of the school estate in the future, in Shetland, these poor perceptions will have to be addressed.”

The report also commented on the SIC’s decision in November 2014 to retain North Roe and Urafirth primary schools after lengthy consultations, and to abandon plans to consult on closing the primaries at Sandness and Burravoe.

It said: “…it was clear that there was no willingness to support any school closure proposals at that time, and officer time was being wasted on carrying out pointless work.”

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