Parental opposition is building in Shetland as the council unveils plans which could lead to the closure of five primary schools and one secondary department.
Councillors, who were due to make their first attempt to resolve the issues at a meeting of their services committee yesterday, came in for criticism from HMI last month for failing to act decisively to rationalise their schools, in what appeared to be a pre-election loss of nerve last year.
In a move to emerge from the council's position between a rock and a hard place, the radical overhaul proposed by a best-value review group of councillors and officials also envisages the islands' six junior high schools offering sixth-year provision.
Councillors are already gearing themselves up for a similar battle to that of 18 months ago. Then, fierce public resistance to closures resulted in a resounding defeat for the ruling Liberal Democrat group on the council in last year's local elections.
In what is now a far more radical plan than that proposed in 2002, the working group is suggesting the closure of primary schools in Uyeasound on Unst, Cullivoe and Burravoe on Yell, Olnafirth in Voe, and Sandness on the west side of the Shetland mainland. This would leave the islands of Unst and Yell with a single school each.
The junior high schools at Baltasound, Mid Yell, Whalsay, Aith, Scalloway and Sandwick would be upgraded to take sixth-year students. But the isle of Out Skerries would lose its secondary department, which has three pupils.
The group estimates the changes would save the education authority up to pound;500,000 a year. However, a more significant saving would be on the proposed new Anderson High School, in Lerwick, whose re-building costs could be slashed by pound;11 million.
Bill Manson, the council's education spokesman, said the proposals had been drawn up after thorough consultation with 3,500 stakeholders throughout the isles, including parents and teachers.
He said the group was trying to offer a long-term strategy for education in Shetland. "This is a model that will preserve the quality of education, make some savings and ensure the service is sustainable for the foreseeable future," he said.
"I would hope that if and when these proposals become policy we get a period of stability in which we can implement them," he continued. But, having himself opposed the closure of a school in his council ward in 2002, Mr Manson is in no doubt that there will be similar opposition from others once again.
Yet he said this time people were being given more time and opportunity to discuss the proposals informally. A final decision will have to be taken on the way forward in September, prior to formal consultation.
One voice favouring change, however, came from Annette Mitchell, Shetland's representative on the Scottish School Board Association. She said:
"Obviously they have to save money because the cost of education in Shetland is phenomenal, and I find nothing in the report to which I object violently." But Ms Mitchell added: "I think they will have a harder job convincing the parents this time round because they are much more clued-up now."
Shetland's education service costs pound;35m a year for its 22,000 population.
Following this week's committee meeting, the working group's report will go to the full council next Wednesday. If accepted, consultation with the affected communities will feed into a report to the services committee in early September.
The HMI report, which followed up the highly critical inspection in 2001, found that the council had made very good or good progress in rectifying the shortcomings in its education service.
However, its failure to tackle the best-value issues surrounding school provision meant HMI put off until March a decision on whether to pay a return visit for what would be an unprecedented third inspection.