SHETLAND Islands Council’s education committee has formally struck off plans to reduce provision or shut its secondary school departments in Mid Yell and Symbister.
The two unanimous decisions, described as a “rubber stamping” exercise by committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart, follow earlier council decisions to abandon its closure proposals.
Councillors voted against shutting North Roe and Urafirth primaries in late 2014 – leading to a realisation that this council had no appetite for further school closures.
The local authority then agreed to complete the formal consultation processes for Mid Yell and Symbister. That was done partly at the behest of parents, allowing a five-year moratorium on any closure plans to kick in for the two island schools.
Wishart moved not to proceed with closure in both cases at a meeting on Thursday morning, and was seconded by education and families committee vice chairman George Smith.
A meeting of the full council will consider the same two reports on Thursday afternoon. It is expected they will also ratify the two reports.
But with the nationwide public spending climate showing little sign of improvement, there remains a likelihood that other closures may once again be looked at following the May 2017 council elections.
The local authority has a target of saving £5 million in children’s services between now and 2021. It had estimated that shutting the two secondary departments would have saved a combined £735,000, while ceasing to provide S4 education at the two schools would have resulted in annual savings of around £280,000.
“In both these proposals, and the responses to them, there have been a series of attacks on the integrity of the professionals working in children’s services which in my view is unfair and unacceptable,” Wishart said.
“Unfair because they can’t answer back, and unacceptable because they are always untrue. They [the staff] are professional, honest and diligent, and any suggestion to the contrary needs to be rebutted quite firmly.
“Disagreeing with proposals is fine, and councillors are fair game, but denigrating the people that are trying so hard to provide what is an excellent education service for this community are not on.”
Smith said now would be an excellent time to ask for a meeting with the SNP government’s islands minister Humza Yousaf, finance secretary Derek Mackay and education secretary John Swinney to discuss the realities of delivering education in small island communities.
That idea was backed by other committee members.
“We’d be fooling ourselves if we don’t realise there are challenges ahead for education in Shetland,” Smith said. “We have an ongoing funding issue within the council – we don’t get enough money to do all that we want to do.”
He said the schools service had made year-on-year savings in line with the SIC’s medium term financial plan but “we can’t keep taking money out and still think we can deliver the same quality”.
In response to concerns raised by education committee member Martin Tregonning, children’s services director Helen Budge said that pupils from rural junior highs who wished to make a placing request to the Anderson High School for S4, in order to access a specific range of subjects, would be entitled to have any hostel or transport costs waived.