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Education / Attempt to pause school mothballing process outvoted

Cullivoe Primary School.

A BID to pause the process around potentially mothballing the Skeld and Cullivoe primary schools failed in a vote in the council chamber on Monday.

Shetland West councillor Liz Peterson said she felt there needed to be wider engagement with communities in the process, which was at risk of being “rushed”, and claimed the process had not been handled well.

She called for the process to be paused to allow the policy around mothballing to be reviewed.

A motion by committee chair Davie Sandison to simply note an update report on the controversial issue of mothballing two primary schools won in a vote by seven to three.

The Shetland Central councillor said there were still further stages to come in the consultation process.

The meeting also heard that a “lessons learned” report is likely to be created following the process, and that final decisions would be referred to the committee rather than be made under delegated authority.

It is the first time potential mothballing has been considered since new principles were introduced by Shetland Islands Council (SIC) last year.

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

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.

However there has been strong concern from both communities.

North Isles councillor Ryan Thomson told Monday’s meeting that the roll at Cullivoe no longer sits within the trigger point figure.

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

He felt it was an “unnecessary use of resource and time” if the consultation into Cullivoe continues despite an increased school roll.

Peterson meanwhile said there was “unanimous” opposition in Skeld and Cullivoe to the idea of their schools potentially being mothballed, and said there was development mooted in both areas which could potentially increase school numbers in the future.

She also said she could not see an educational reason behind the decision to consult on mothballing, and claimed it seemed like the SIC was “discriminating” against fragile communities.

Fellow Shetland West councillor Mark Robinson also questioned the capacity for Aith Junior High School to take on more pupils, given that it is at “86 per cent” just now with teachers struggling for space.

But the meeting heard that the ongoing assessment stage will take into a range of factors, including reviewing current rolls and the capacity of other local schools, with children’s services director Helen Budge saying there would also be an impact assessment.

Peterson said however she felt a timescale included in the update report of a decision being taken by the Easter holidays – which start at the end of March – was too soon, stressing she did not want the process to be rushed.

Sandison did however suggest attempts could be made to arrange a special meeting of the education and families committee in April.

He said in his view that with further work to be done in the process the situation should not be halted, and instead members should await the outcome.

Given that there is more to come in the process Sandison also denied claims of a lack of transparency.

The committee chair also said “we need to make sure we get this done right” and noted how if the community are opposed to any proposal the SIC makes then it comes back to the committee.

Budge previously said that all information presented by school communities would be taken into account during the process.

Meanwhile the committee agreed that the schools in Papa Stour, Skerries and Fetlar should continue to be mothballed, with a review taking place annually.

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