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Education / Councillors vote to mothball Skeld Primary School

SKELD Primary School in Shetland is to be mothballed after councillors went to a vote this morning (Monday).

It means pupils at the school will go to Aith Junior High School after the summer holidays.

One key concern from some councillors was the impact low roll numbers can have on the experience of children when it comes to group and collaborative learning, and the social element.

As of March this year there were four pupils in the primary and two in the nursery, with no increases expected in future years.

A vote at Monday’s meeting of Shetland Islands Council’s (SIC) education and families committee went in favour of mothballing by eight to two.

The amendment to halt mothballing was made by Shetland West councillor Liz Peterson, who was visibly upset after the meeting had come to a close.

Speaking after the meeting Skeld Parent Council’s Samantha Hackett said she was “very disappointed” and added her view that the SIC incorrectly assumed the majority of parents in the school’s catchment area were not opposed to mothballing.

She felt the matter should have gone to further assessment or statutory consultation.

The meeting was held after a petition against mothballing had attracted more than 500 signatures.

Consideration of mothballing was triggered last year after new principles were agreed by councillors.

These include consideration of consulting on possible mothballing when school rolls fall below a 20 per cent capacity threshold.

The threshold for consideration of mothballing at Skeld is 12 pupils.

The process has drawn strong concern from the school’s parent council, which has advocated wider consultation.

In 2024/25 there are 12 primary aged children who live in the Skeld catchment area from nine families, but eight of them will attend other schools in the Westside through the choice of their families.

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The SIC has classified those parents and carers who have submitted placing requests for their children to attend other Westside schools as not being in opposition to the Skeld mothballing proposal.

But the parent council said some of these parents had signed the petition against mothballing.

It is anticipated that all Skeld staff would be redeployed into existing vacant posts within the SIC’s children’s services department.

The recommendation to mothball came after three months of assessment, which included consultation with the school community.

The report to councillors stated that while savings would be made from mothballing, this was not to be the basis of the decision.

The opinion of children’s services was that the views gathered, and the high percentage of placing requests outwith Skeld, “do not demonstrate that a majority of parents and carers residing in the Skeld Primary School catchment area oppose the proposal to mothball”.

Following a half-hour introduction children’s services director Helen Budge concluded at Monday’s meeting that there were “too few pupils in the school”.

The meeting heard that the small numbers limit the ability for collaborative working in school, and socialisation with similar-aged children.

Having listened to the community through the process, Peterson said she had a list of 32 points to raise regarding the potential mothballing.

Among her concerns were the capacity of Aith Junior High School as well as the fact that transport provision in the event of mothballing had been discussed with parents already – contrary to policy.

But regarding the latter Budge said the SIC spoke about possible transport methods to Aith because parents had asked about it.

A key issue for Peterson was how the views of local families were represented in the report to councillors, saying the opinion of children’s services was “factually incorrect”.

Budge said in previous exercises for Olnafirth and Bressay the council had assumed families with placing requests were not opposed.

She added that all families in the catchment area, including those whose children attend other schools, had been contacted, with meetings offered and a survey going to those who did not take part.

Budge said there were two responses to the survey, with neither saying they were opposed to mothballing.

The report to councillors said the staff at Skeld provide very good education to children.

It was Shetland Central councillor Moraig Lyall, a former teacher, who moved the recommendation to mothball the school.

She acknowledged that these types of decisions are always difficult to make.

But Lyall said there was increased importance placed in education on collaborative learning and group work, and she said she was not convinced this could be achieved in a school with only four primary pupils.

Depute convener Bryan Peterson agreed, while Lerwick councillor Stephen Leask said his initial concerns had been allayed by the responses from officials at the meeting.

SIC leader Emma Macdonald highlighted some comments from pupils at Skeld about having the opportunity to make more friends in Aith.

Meanwhile Shetland North councillor Tom Morton said one of his own children had benefitted from transferring from a small school to a larger one – and also backed the Skeld mothballing.

“It is a shame but it is the reality of the situation,” the councillor said.

Lerwick South councillor John Fraser also remarked on the “conjecture and supposition” regarding the opinions of parents with placing requests and said it put them in an “invidious position”.

Peterson meanwhile denied any parents had been “targeted or bullied” by anybody truing to find out their views on the matter.

The Shetland West councillor also said the mothballing policy was not fit for purpose.

Peterson’s amendment against mothballing in fact supported the idea of a statutory consultation for closure taking place instead – with her view being that it would take into account the opinions of the wider community.

When it came to a vote only North Isles councillor Ryan Thomson backed Peterson’s amendment, who also criticised the mothballing policy.

After the decision made committee vice-chair Catherine Hughson, standing in for chairman Davie Sandison, said it had been a “stressful time” for all involved.

But she reiterated her view that children’s education should take into account wider aspects such as the social element.

“I realise for Skeld it’s a very upsetting time but I really think we’ve made the best decision for the bairns involved today,” Hughson said.

Should Skeld’s roll rise to 12 pupils in the future, a conversation will be held by central officers with parents, carers and children about re-opening the school.

There will be an annual review of the decision, along with other current mothballed schools – Papa Stour, Skerries and Fetlar.

The report added: “The maximum length of time that a school will be mothballed is likely to depend on the location of the school and the desirability of maintaining capacity to re-open a school there, but it is unlikely that it should exceed three years in areas that are not very remote.”

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