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Secondaries set for early Friday finishes – but teaching union voices reservations

SIC quality improvement officer Robin Calder.

SECONDARY schools across Shetland are set to adopt a new timetable involving four slightly longer days and an early finish on Fridays.

Councillors heard at Monday morning’s meeting of the education and families committee that the plans are due to be introduced in late May.

But the local branch of Scotland’s largest teaching union has voiced reservations about the manner in which the changes are to be made, describing it as “bad for education in Shetland”.

Education officials stressed there would be no change to the amount of time pupils spend in class, which will remain at 27.5 hours a week.

Days will be split into 33 periods of 50 minutes – seven periods from Monday to Thursday and five on a Friday, a model that already operates in the secondary departments at Aith and Whalsay.

The exact timings of the school day have been agreed by individual secondaries in discussion with their respective parent councils, and there are “no plans” to implement the model in primary schools.

A report from quality improvement officer Robin Calder said the set-up worked well in the aforementioned schools – he was head teacher at Symbister for three years – and would allow the council to use its teaching staff more efficiently.

The "asymmetrical" timetable has deemed a success in Whalsay, according to education officials.

However, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) has voiced concern at the lack of detail provided to date.

EIS local officer Matthew Moss said the union was particularly concerned that the plan will see the council spend more on added transport costs but reduce its staffing resources by the equivalent of 1.78 full-time teachers.

Moss said EIS members had expressed discontent at a union AGM on Saturday.

“Although we are not opposed in principle to much of the content of the report, particularly in looking at an asymmetric week, we do feel that the financial implications have not been thought through properly,” he said.

“We’re extremely concerned, at a time when we’re having trouble recruiting staff, obtaining staff, a reality of the situation in classrooms in Shetland is that teachers are being asked to do more and more with fewer resources.

“To take teachers out of the classroom in order to pay for one-off transport costs, recurring transport costs, is not going down well with our members and is bad for education in Shetland.”

It is estimated the transport costs will be £139,000 a year, around £53,000 of which will be one-off expenditure, on adjusting service times, bringing in larger vehicles and waiting time costs.

But the council is confident the £86,000 of recurring costs will be found from savings in staffing reductions.

Moss added that the detail of bus timetables would be important given some pupils currently finish school and then catch a service bus to enable them to participate in various activities.

“Pupils and parents need to see that information before they can decide if that’s the right thing,” Moss added. “Considering they’ve been working on this since 2015, we should probably have had a more detailed paper at this time.”

He was speaking after hearing Calder tell councillors the “asymmetric” school week “has worked well” at the two schools it has been trialled in and is an “increasingly common arrangement for timetables across Scotland”.

Schools service staff are working with colleagues in sport and leisure and youth services, along with Shetland Recreational Trust, on the possibility of laying on additional Friday afternoon activities for pupils.

Calder said the redesigned week would “enable our full time teachers to teach to their maximum class contact time”, while another benefit would be allowing pupils who live in the North Isles to travel home earlier on a Friday.

The local authority plans to issue further information and write to all parents before the plans – subject to further approval at other council committees – are implemented from Tuesday 29 May. That coincides with the conclusion of the 2017/18 exam timetable.

Calder added that staffing reductions “would be done over time and through natural wastage when colleagues retire or move on from the local authority”.

Committee chairman George Smith said the “common timetable” structure was a “good step forward in terms of maximising resources” by “timetabling staff more efficiently and effectively”.

He added there would be “downsides for some parents, not least with the early closure on a Friday afternoon”, and he was keen to ensure the changes were communicated clearly to parents.

General Election - 12 December 2019