AHEAD of this Thursday’s local government elections, we have asked all SIC candidates for their views on a host of issues – the latest being the thorny issue of school closures.
A combination of strong opposition from the affected communities and a lengthy Scottish Government-imposed moratorium on school closures resulted in the last council abandoning plans to reduce the number of schools in Shetland midway through the term.
But, despite the local authority’s success in reaching a healthier financial position, the spectre of continued public spending austerity across the UK over the next five years means many expect education officials to come back with fresh proposals before too long.
We asked each of the 32 candidates: “Do you envisage having to vote to shut any a) secondary school departments and/or b) primary schools in the next five years?”
The 23 responses suggest that finding a majority in favour of closures is likely to be difficult.
While a variety of views were expressed, respondents in areas most likely to be affected – the North Isles, the North Mainland and the West Mainland – are resolutely opposed to shutting schools against the wishes of communities.
Malcolm Bell: “With ongoing government funding cuts, possible changes in the size of school rolls and the responsibility to ensure the very best quality of education and equality of opportunity for all Shetland’s children, no responsible council could, categorically, rule out consideration of some school closures at some point in the next five years.
“I recognise the stress this causes to parents and children. We must seek to work with communities to gain their support and understanding for any changes, which may be required. We must also pursue the Scottish government to fairly fund our education.”
John Fraser: “As the Scottish Government continues to place financial constraints on local authorities, it is imperative that the new council must continue to ensure an effective and fair distribution of resources to ensure an equitable, best value education for all. If elected I will encourage other elected members to act upon the advice and recommendations of officials and educationalists and vote accordingly.”
No responses received from Stephen Leask or Thomas Williamson.
Peter Campbell: “It is probable that there will be votes on both the closure of secondary and primary schools within the next five years. Much will depend on the level of funding received from the Scottish Government, which is why a factor in the council’s grant allocation should realistically reflect the high cost of delivering education in Shetland. There may well be an impact on secondary school roles by parents opting to place their children in the new Anderson High School which could reduce pupil numbers in some schools and call into question their viability.”
Frankie Valente: “Schools – I hope that there is no need to close any schools over the next five years. We need to support rural areas as much as possible and schools are key to keeping communities viable and sustainable. I do not think it is helpful for small children to have to travel miles by bus every day to their primary school. Adults hate long commutes so why should we expect little children to do this? It is not good for their education. We need to find other ways to manage the education budget to enable schools to stay open.”
Beatrice Wishart: “I envisage some discussion around the size of the school estate and whatever the outcome of that then the council should aim to bring people along with it. Attempting to close schools in the manner previously tried is unlikely to achieve this.”
No responses from Cecil Smith or Amanda Westlake.
George Smith: “For me, education is the most important service delivered by the council. It is vital that all our young people are able to make the best possible start to their education and that they are able to progress to achieve the best they possibly can. To do this, the council must continue to invest in early years education and develop flexible approaches to providing this. We must support all our pupils with additional needs and provide the resources and teacher input for every pupil to reach their potential and move on to the next stages of their lives, including investment in apprenticeships, further and higher education.
“I would therefore not support any further reductions in school budgets and I would only consider the closure of a school if the wider school community decides that that is the best way forward from an educational perspective.”
Robbie McGregor: “Schools should only be closed if the parents and children concerned wish it.”
No response from Allison Duncan..
Ian Scott: “The current betting is that the Sandwick school will be the first to disappear. To me any school closure is an absolute disgrace and should be opposed tooth and nail. We have £500 million at our disposal and closing any school should be unthinkable. The problem I am sure I would face, if I were elected, would be persuading other councillors to see the lunacy and short-sightedness of closures.
“The savings, as they are laughingly called, are nothing other than an attack on our very way of life. The Scalloway secondary was closed a few years ago, and where are the savings there? I daresay there will be votes to close schools, and other efforts to close other essential services, but I can assure everyone that there is someone prepared to fight to the bitter end to safeguard our vital services. I repeat, we have over £500m in the kitty. How many billions do we need to ensure that our services are secure?”
Davie Sandison: “Despite the level of cuts already made to our education budget, we still have very difficult decisions to take as we look for further savings. I believe we have cut support for teachers in our existing schools model as much as we can. There is no appetite for closing schools and SIC are still implementing a range of cost-cutting measures, following comparison with other island and rural areas. After that, we will need to consider limits to subject choice and greater investment in technology to assist remote delivery to multiple school settings.
“I am delighted we have delivered on the new Anderson High School and halls of residence, on time and on budget. As the secondary school for the whole central ward, I want to see this school stand out as a high achiever in Scottish attainment tables again.”
Brian Nugent: “I will not vote to close schools, unless parents and children wish it. Not aware of school department closure plans, would have to see the detail but cutting back on what is available to pupils does not seem the way forward.”
Julie Buchan: “I am not in favour of any more schools or departments closing. Rural communities can only survive if there are good primary and junior high/high schools nearby or young families are forced to move, or will not choose to live there.
“The council has always maintained how important rural communities are, and should be protected from the worst cuts – good schools are at the heart of any community and if they are closed pretty soon other parts of the community will start to suffer, like the local shops and the recreational facilities.
“Then there’s the problem of bussing pupils to Lerwick, it will make it a long day for the pupils and if there’s no supervision on the school bus it can lead to bullying problems.”
Mark Burgess: “To answer the question in the specific way in which it has been asked, I do envisage (or contemplate) that the subject will arise for debate again. The central government’s proposed cuts to Shetland’s funding undermines the stability that the outgoing council achieved.
“The forthcoming national election may affect the necessity for this to be considered again and, equally, the efficacy of SIC lobbying toward achieving fair and equitable funding for our ferries will, surprisingly, influence this subject, as the yield of Shetland’s reserve fund investments will be more able to support the previously achieved stability if this cost can be addressed through rightful external funding.”
Ryan Thomson: “I suspect that school closures will be on the agenda again over the course of the next five years, however I am encouraged when reading other prospective Councillors manifestos, the clear majority of which are against any sort of closures.
“If elected, I will work strenuously with all five islands to make sure the schools are preserved. The strength of feeling about the rural school closures has been palpable in the North Isles for years now, certainly highlighted during my canvassing over the past few weeks.
“I know the importance that a school is to local people. Losing a school wouldn’t just rip the heart out of that community, but it would also have a serious detrimental knock on effect to every single business on that island and within that community. We must preserve all schools.
“As a business owner, I’m not naïve to the financial reality facing the council, but if I am elected I will make the case that we must take a long-term view to the sustainability of our rural communities. The slow decline of any of our Northern Isles, or rural areas will ultimately be far more costly to Shetland than the small savings made by shutting schools – both economically and culturally.”
Duncan Simpson: “Hopefully not. I believe closing schools should be seen as an extreme last resort when all other options have been exhausted. That being said, I do not know the current situation of every individual school in Shetland. I do commit my unwavering support to the junior high schools in the North Isles as I believe this is a tried and tested system which has benefited many isles students.”
Lynsey Cunningham: “I want to modernise the educational model and move toward a system that will ensure the longevity of our rural schools. If money from the education department is required to be saved, streamlining Hayfield House will be the first port of call on the agenda. I vehemently reject the need to close schools. School are the centre of the community in rural areas and they are crucial to attracting families.”
Alec Priest: “I am strong believer in not cutting front line services. Closing any of the schools would be to the detriment to the pupils, the current school model has proven itself time and again, there are better places to look when making financial efficiencies. If we are to vote on closing any more schools, my vote will be no.”
No response from Cecil Hughson.
Emma McDonald: “I imagine this subject will be faced by the next council and I stand firmly against any school closures.”
Andrea Manson: “No doubt this subject will rear its ugly head again. I remain committed to supporting rural schools.”
No responses from Alastair Cooper or Isobel Johnson.
Catherine Hughson: “I can envisage having to argue against proposed school closures. SIC has to save £20m during the lifetime of this council and I anticipate considerable debate on where the necessary cuts will be made I will take my lead from the community should I be successful. I’m much more concerned with restoring secondary school attainment levels. Asking Scottish government to fund more for education.”
Ian Tinkler: “No closures, our rural communities are dependent on our children. The prospect of bussing youngsters 25 miles to Lerwick or forced boarding is abhorrent.”
Steven Coutts: “We fought to protect schools in the last five years. I sincerely hope the next council does not have to do the same again. We must give communities the opportunity to thrive. I know how highly valued the schools are in the Westside and I want us to remove the focus from school’s estate. In the face of projected government cuts, the SIC will find it difficult to balance the budgets over the next five years.
“Communities will have to become less reliant on the SIC, but one thing I would see the council doing is providing a clear policy position that the next five years will not see schools proposed for closure against the wishes of the community. Take the cloud of uncertainty away for the community.”
Gary Robinson: “No. However that will depend upon the council securing sufficient funding. The council that I led has done exceptionally well in securing the reserves which contribute over £8 million a year to schools and education. It’s likely that schools would have closed before now if the reserves had dwindled away as was predicted back in 2012. With nearly twice the amount of money in the reserves now compared to 2012 this provides almost twice the investment income to support services.
“The Scottish Government recently made education its top priority and said fairness and equality should be at the heart of this. I want to hold them to account to ensure that this is matched by fair funding for all of our schools. The other unknown quantity is when parents decide to put their children to other schools as was the case with Quarff and, more recently, Bressay or when a school roll drops to zero. Even if a school closes for want of pupils the council still has to vote to formally close it.”
Theo Smith: “I would be surprised if primary schools were considered for closure in the next five years. However, the same cannot be said about the junior high secondary departments. Unless the Scottish Government stands by all its promises on prioritising education on a fair and equal basis and to fairly fund rural schools then I do think closure of the mainland junior high secondary departments will be revisited. This would be a disaster for the West Mainland not only due to its geographical position but to close such an excellent preforming department with a rising roll would be very hard for the council to justify.”
Debbie Nicolson: “Instead of closing schools, we need to find alternative ways to save money. One way would be to revisit and revise the alternative blueprint compiled by three parent councils in response to the Council’s Blueprint for Education, which contained many ideas on how the schools’ estate could be redesigned while keeping junior highs open and cutting back on the education budget. For example, one idea was to introduce a federated high school with one head teacher and each individual school with a principal teacher.
“Instead of closing schools, if the school roll threatens to drop we need to look at why this is happening. I’m very keen to see rural areas become more sustainable and to grow. If we let these areas decline of course you’re going to see a drop in school rolls. If we close schools we will contribute to rural decline as people will not wish to settle there. We need to avoid this in the first instance.”