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Education / Principles put in place for process of mothballing schools

Committee chairman Davie Sandison said ‘we should be guided by the communities’ point of view at all times’

Fetlar Primary School was mothballed in 2022. Photo © Ken Craig (cc-by-sa/2.0)

PLANS to set procedures around the mothballing of schools in Shetland created plenty of debate and discussion at a council meeting on Tuesday – but consultation with the community was a common theme among elected members.

The proposal which was ultimately passed at the education and families committee meeting included a principle that a mothballed school should reach 20 per cent of its total capacity before it can reopen.

It also includes that should a school roll fall below the 20 per cent figure, consideration would be given to entering into consultation with the school community on a possible mothballing.

But a key message from the meeting was that the thresholds would only act as a way to begin talks with with parents, which would inform any future decision.

Children’s services director Helen Budge said: “There will always be, whatever number it is, a conversation that would then go on with that school community.”

Shetland Islands Council currently has three mothballed schools due to a lack of pupils – the primaries in Fetlar, Papa Stour and Skerries.

The 20 per cent threshold for each school would be five, three and six respectively.

This approach has also been proposed in order to ensure some peer interaction among children who would potentially be present in a reopened school.

There were differing views on the education and families committee, however, among setting a figure.

Elected members were also keen to see cases of possible mothballing treated on an individual basis.

The matter was brought to the committee after discussion when the Fetlar Primary School was mothballed last year.

Shetland West member Liz Peterson felt using total capacity as an indicator was the wrong way forward because some primaries are old buildings, which were made when roll numbers may have been different.

Shetland South councillor Bryan Peterson was also keen to highlight there are a number of variables at play for each school, including its catchment area.

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The council’s learning estate manager Shona Thomson said she felt the 20 per cent figure was an “objective” way to go about it, but suggested it was just a proposal.

Another alternative which came up in the council officers’ thinking was having two or more families as a trigger point.

Meanwhile a report to members said the staff costs of reopening a mothballed school would be at least £110,000.

Council leader Emma Macdonald, though, questioned whether the council would be able to sufficiently recruit enough staff to man any reopened school.

Budge reassured members that the matter is not focused on cost alone.

“It has to be around that educational value and that consultation,” she said.

The meeting heard that the Fair Isle and Skeld primaries are currently below the 20 per cent threshold, at nine per cent and 17 per cent respectively.

Foula (22 per cent), Cullivoe (22 per cent) and Mossbank (29 per cent) are also near the figure.

Thomson said any potential discussions regarding this would depend on the age and stage of pupils in the school.

She explained that there could be, for example, a few pupils in the upper stages of the primary school due to move on soon anyway.

Or there could be some younger pupils coming up through nursery or early primary, which would be a different picture.

“Every case would need to be dealt with on its merits,” Thompson said.

After a flurry of proposed amendments on wording as well as a vote, committee chairman Davie Sandison ended up having the final say.

His proposal was to approve the principle of a 20 per cent capacity threshold before a mothballed school is reopened.

It also included the principle of that should a school roll fall below the 20 per cent figure, consideration will be given to entering into consultation with the school community around mothballing.

Should the majority of a school community oppose a mothballing there would be no automatic move to commence a closure consultation.

The situation of all mothballed schools would be reviewed annually.

Sandison said “we should be guided by the communities’ point of view at all times about what’s best for the body of bairns that are affected”.

Lerwick South member Neil Pearson, though, said the committee had previously requested information on what it would take to reopen a mothballed school – not about the capacity of a school for mothballing.

Both Papa Stour and Skerries were mothballed in 2017, and there are currently no children of school age in these two islands.

The cost of maintaining the schools in the 2021/22 financial year was £8,000 for Skerries and £2,400 for Papa Stour.

Fetlar was mothballed last year amid a dwindling roll. There are fewer than five children there, but alternative arrangements have been made.

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