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Education / Staffing challenges remain in schools

THERE have been times where schools in Shetland have been “very close” to not being able to operate in full due to recruitment challenges and sickness, a meeting has heard.

Shetland Islands Council’s (SIC) children’s services director Helen Budge said last winter was particularly hard.

She said home learning packs would be on offer if a school was to close, while virtual learning is also available.

The matter was brought up at a meeting of the SIC’s education and families committee on Monday.

Recruitment continues to prove a challenge across the council, and Budge said there tends to be between 40 to 50 vacancies in children’s services at a time.

For instance she added that some people have been seconded into headteacher roles which have struggled with recruitment.

There is a ‘vacancy factor’ in budgets this year and this has resulted in savings of £1.359 million in children’s services.

One particular area which is causing concern at the moment is specialist teachers in subjects like PE and music.

On top of recruitment, there have has been a relatively high level of sickness in recent years given the Covid pandemic and other illnesses.

Committee chair Davie Sandison asked how close some services or settings have been to not being able to fully operate due to not having enough staff available.

Budge replied “very close”, adding that it come cases it could be provision for ASN for a child, or a teacher for a class.

“We have been at the stage of where we were close to saying ‘actually, can we function?’” she said.

Budge also said it can be a particular problem for Shetland’s smaller schools where there is less staff.

The director said staffing challenges can be “very disheartening” for headteachers as they look to find supply workers.

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She explained that in instances of illness for example a head teacher may have to phone though a list of supply or relief staff in the morning – but sometimes they might not find someone suitable.

The children’s services director also told the committee that work is ongoing to improve that system of sourcing stand-in staff.

Shetland Central councillor Moraig Lyall asked if children may be able to decant to a different school where staffing was available.

Budge said there was one situation with a fire in the Hamnavoe school where children had to be decanted to Whiteness for a period of time.

She said the council has not decanted pupils as a result of staff sickness, but the director did not rule it out.

“It may come to that,” Budge said. “I’m absolutely aware that that’s something in our back pocket should we require it.”

She said schools would also look to reconfigure how a day’s teaching is carried out in the event of staff shortages.

During debate depute convener Bryan Peterson said recruitment was an issue for the whole of Shetland, not just the council.

He said some services were developed in the “oil boom economy” and suggested they may need to be reconfigure given the staffing challenges.

Meanwhile Sandison also noted the goodwill from staff during challenges with vacancies, but said it cannot continue indefinitely.

He thanked all staff working when these situations arise.

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