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Education / New learning estate strategy hugely important, meeting hears

Photo: Shetland News

A NEW strategy focusing on the the condition of the school estate in Shetland is in the pipeline – with a senior councillor describing it as one of the most important documents in the future of education in recent years.

The learning estate strategy aims to ensure that Shetland Islands Council “invests wisely to meet the education needs” across schools.

It received a warm welcome at a meeting of the council’s education and families committee on Monday ahead of further airings this week.

A key goal is to see all of Shetland’s schools attain top ‘A’ grades in condition and suitability in the long-term.

A 2019 survey showed that only the new Anderson High School and the Mid Yell Junior High building were given ‘A’ grades for condition, with all others given a B rating.

It was more varied picture in the survey for suitability, which assessed areas like learning spaces, accessibility and functionality.

Whilst many schools achieved A grades, some attained ‘C’ grades – “poor” – in certain areas, while Dunrossness Primary School was given a ‘D’ for overall accessibility.

There is also a desire to provide enhanced provision a number of schools across Shetland for specific needs.

Schools manager Shona Thompson said apart from the new Anderson High School, which opened for pupils in 2017, and expansion to early learning there has been no significant investment in the learning estate in recent years.

She said new plan, which is replaces a school estate strategy, has key themes such as equity, excellence, inclusion and sustainability.

The strategy stems from a new Scottish Government strategy and a shared investment programme worth £1 billion to pay for improvements to schools across the country.

Thompson said proposals for investment at Shetland schools would go through a detailed options appraisal, which would mean that “decisions will be factually based”.

No firm proposals for refurbishment have been drawn up yet, but talks with the Scottish Government are expected soon.

Thompson said that there is also a hope to extend consultation on the strategy to pupils, parents and staff.

During debate chairman George Smith said the strategy is potentially the most important report the committee will consider in the current council when it comes to the future of education.

“It’s clear that there’s a lot of work to be done in the short, medium and longer term,” he said.

But the Shetland South councillor said the strategy sets out the way forward for this.

He encouraged officers to take advantage of any external funding available for work to schools, and said there can be “exciting and positive” times ahead for education.

The proposed strategy received a warm welcome from councillors on the committee, with members happy to see a plan cover the whole school estate in a “holistic” approach.

Religious representative Martin Tregonning said he felt there had been criticism in the past that the council’s response to the school estate had been carried out on a more ad-hoc basis.

Shetland Central member Davie Sandison, meanwhile, said he hoped the council would invest “significantly” in the school estate.

Having a councillor from the committee on the strategy’s project board was mooted by Shetland West’s Catherine Hughson, but Smith said he felt separation was required between elected members and SIC officers.

Lerwick member John Fraser also agreed with Smith adding that councillors had a role in committees to scrutinise the work of the local authority.

“Members sitting on a project board would I suggest create that conflict of interest,” he said.

During questioning, meanwhile, Lerwick member Amanda Hawick said it was “quite shocking” that figures showed that the full potential capacity of Bell’s Brae Primary School was 528.

The current roll at the Lerwick school is around 300.

Hawick said the school being at full capacity would be like “sardines in a tin” – and a situation where learning could suffer.

Thompson, however, said the figure was derived from a national methodology on calculating primary school capacity which involved wall to wall measurements.

In response to another question from Hawick, Thompson also said the projected school roll across Shetland in the coming years is fairly static.

As of September last year there were 3,801 primary and secondary pupils registered at Shetland’s schools.

There are 24 primary schools, although Papa Stour and Skerries are mothballed due to no children on the roll, while there are two high schools and five junior highs.

The learning estate strategy, meanwhile, will now go in front of the SIC’s policy and resources committee on Tuesday and the full council on Wednesday.