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Retreat over rural closures

Shetland councillors are continuing to act cautiously over school closures, despite the unprecedented threat of a third visit by HMI and Audit Scotland to check on their "best value" performance.

The council's services committee, keeping more of an eye on the electorate than the inspectorate, last week deferred any decision on the proposals to shut five small primaries and a three-pupil secondary until a three month "informal consultation" period with staff, parents and pupils has been concluded.

The meeting was attended by 70 protesters from the communities where schools have been earmarked for closure - Burravoe and Cullivoe on the island of Yell, Uyeasound on Unst isle, Olnafirth in Voe and Sandness on the island's West Side.

In one of the most passionate campaigns against school closures waged in Scotland in recent times, the protesters carried banners and wore T-shirts, applauding every statement made for their communities during the two-hour meeting. Afterwards the mood was upbeat, the feeling being that the authority could be persuaded to back off.

Brian Gregson, who represents Unst and Fetlar, said the process of closing schools in fragile communities had been, at the least, delayed.

He said: "I am reasonably satisfied that we have put on the brakes here and have slowed the process down. We committed ourselves to consult more widely with the public, and most important, we committed ourselves to make the information that led to the proposals widely available."

Phil Kennerley, chairman of Cullivoe primary school board, added that small schools were an integral part of Shetland's rural communities. "Once the council has been given accurate information and has seen the whole picture, I honestly don't think that they will turn around and close the schools."

Following the meeting, Alex Jamieson, the head of education who received a glowing tribute in the HMI follow-up report on the authority for turning round Shetland's education service, said he was pleased the council had adopted the recommendations of a working group of councillors and officers, which was that consultations should take place for a another three months.

He said there would be an updated report in late September or early October with more information which would take into account stakeholder opinion.

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