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Education / School mothballing concern in communities as parents feel ‘let down’

SIC children’s services director Helen Budge said all information presented by school communities will be taken into account

Cullivoe Primary School.

THERE has been stern opposition to the consultation on potentially mothballing two Shetland primary schools – with parents in Cullivoe saying they feel “let down” by the council.

The Cullivoe Primary School parent council also said a school roll figure provided in an update report due to go in front of elected members next week is inaccurate, stating it now has eight pupils, not seven – claiming it is enough to meet the 20 per cent capacity threshold.

Meanwhile over on the Westside councillor Liz Peterson said Skeld Primary School – the other one in the mothballing consultation process – should stay open, particularly given its nursery is now offering full funded hours.

Shetland Islands Council’s (SIC) children’s services director Helen Budge said all information provided by the school communities will be taken into account during the process.

Meetings have already been held with parents and staff at both Cullivoe and Skeld, although the latter’s situation is more advanced.

But it was only this week that the matter became public when the agenda for next week’s SIC education and families committee was published.

A mothballing update report said as of November 2023 the projected roll for 2024/25 at Skeld was six pupils, at a capacity of ten per cent, and for Cullivoe that was seven pupils and 16 per cent – both excluding reserved places.

Under new principles agreed by councillors last year the mothballing consultation will be trigged when a school’s roll drops below 20 per cent of its capacity.

But there is significant concern from the community of Cullivoe about the process – with a key point being that the parent council suggesting the current roll meets the 20 per cent capacity condition, when combined with reserved places.

It also said it is “extremely disappointed” to have “heard nothing of substance” from education officials since November when a meeting was arranged – “but only at parents’ insistence”.

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“All attempts at meaningful correspondence since then have so far been ignored by both officials and relevant councillors alike – in some cases without even acknowledgement,” the parent council said.

It also said the capacity of Cullivoe – which has previously been threatened with closure – is deemed to be 45 pupils, which is “patently unfeasible” for a modern school setting for anyone who has been in the building.

They claim it is calculated using guidelines from the 1960s based on toilet provision in the school.

“However, the same legislation also covers sink provision – which gives Cullivoe Primary a much smaller total capacity, and therefore would remove it from mothballing considerations,” the parent council added.

They said questions from November’s meeting remained unanswered before they were informed “out of the blue” that the mothballing process was underway.

There also appears to be confusion as to whether the final decision can be made by officials under delegated authority.

Cullivoe parent council chair Alan Keith said: “By any objective assessment of all the facts, we are confident that Cullivoe Primary does not fall under the council’s minimum requirements for ‘mothballing’ – and will not for many years.

“I urge all of Shetland’s councillors to show concern at the way this process has been carried out, and to carefully interrogate the information being provided to them – which we know to be factually inaccurate and out of date.”

He added that the “council will claim that this is just the start of a process, and that the community will be consulted in due course, but we have already lost faith in the fairness of this process – having been largely ignored so far”.

Secretary Kate Lonsdale said Cullivoe parents have taken the decision to speak publicly about their frustration given the “absence of any meaningful response from education officials, plus desperately short timescales”.

Meanwhile the North Yell Development Council has also had its say, stating it is puzzled about the figure being presented to elected members.

It also pointed to its project to increase housing supply in the area, which the group said has an aim to bring families and workers into North Yell.

The development council also feels that the temporary planning restrictions which had been imposed in the area due to the poor condition of the road into Cullivoe, and are still hampering some development, has “further served to facilitate depopulation”.

“We would ask the SIC to consider the stress and uncertainty that is yet again unnecessarily being placed on our community, particularly the parents, pupils and staff at our school, as well as the valuable SIC staff time and financial resources that are being wasted in pursuit of an action based on historic rather than current data,” the group said.

North Isles councillor Robert Thomson, from Yell, also noted the rise in the school roll and the impact the planning restriction in Cullivoe has had on development in the area, including house building.

Skeld Primary School. Photo © Russel Wills (cc-by-sa/2.0)

For Skeld the situation is more advanced, with one to one meetings with parents being held.

A public meeting is being held by Shetland West councillors Liz Peterson and Mark Robinson at the Skeld Hall on Friday at 7pm to gather community views.

Peterson said she was “really sad” to learn that mothballing is being considered for Skeld.

She pointed to how the school’s early learning and childcare (ELC) facility has just been allowed to open for the statutory 30 hours this coming term.

“In the past working parents within the catchment area had to take their children to other schools, to enable them to access the full ELC hours,” Peterson said.

“This has caused the school roll to fall.

“There are over 100 houses within the catchment area, and there are new families who have specifically moved to the area because they wanted their children to attend a smaller school, as this allows the teacher to spend more time individually, with each child.

“There is also a proposed commercial development within the area, including housing for staff, so families would be moving into the community.”

Peterson said like a lot of smaller communities, the school roll tends to fluctuate over time, “and I’m sure that in the near future the roll will be increasing again, as there are young folk living in the area”.

“For these reasons I feel it would be sensible to allow Skeld to remain open for the future, as the process of mothballing, and then perhaps un-mothballing in the near future, could be saved,” the councillor said.

No decisions are being taken on Monday, with councillors only being presented with information as an update.

The local authority said it hopes to assess the situation and gather the relevant information to allow a decision to be taken before the spring holidays.

Shetland Islands Council’s children’s services team are using a ‘mothballing toolkit’ created by education partnership Northern Alliance.

Children’s services director Helen Budge said: “The report to education and families committee on Monday will provide councillors with an update on the current consultations to mothball Cullivoe and Skeld Schools.

“The school roll figures provided in this report were taken from the school census data gathered in September 2023 that has correctly triggered the consideration of mothballing.

“All information provided by the school community will be taken into account and properly evaluated during the different stages of this process.”

Councillors on the SIC’s education and families committee will also be asked on Monday to agree that schools in Papa Stour, Fetlar and Skerries should remain mothballed, with that status reviewed every year.

A mothballed school is unoccupied but it still needs to be maintained in case it reopens.

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