Shetland shocked by scale of cutbacks

17th January 1997 at 00:00
The scale of the budget deficit facing education authorities was underlined this week as the crisis spread to oil-rich Shetland. The council's education committee meets on Monday to decide whether to close schools and shed jobs in line with a report by outside consultants.

The report, which councillors discussed behind closed doors at a two-and-a-half hour session earlier this week, could lead to the closure of three primaries, threaten the future of two more and cause the disappearance of Britain's smallest secondary department.

Nine teachers in Shetland's main secondary could lose their jobs, two junior high schools risk the loss of their secondary departments and a school hostel in Lerwick may close.

David Alexander, Strathclyde's former senior depute director of education, briefed an informal meeting of the education committee on his report, which took place with the public excluded.

Mr Alexander was hired at a cost of Pounds 5,000 after councillors failed to agree their priorities last year for saving more than Pounds 1 million out of the Pounds 26 million education budget. The cuts were part of a council-wide package to reduce spending by Pounds 5 million by 2000.

His report revived the idea of shutting Britain's most northerly school, Haroldswick primary on the island of Unst, along with Uyeasound at the southern end of the island. Mr Alexander said a plan to bus all Unst pupils to Baltasound Junior High was "coherent and reasonable" despite being abandoned last year after parents' protests.

The secondaries affected are the junior high schools at Sandwick and Scalloway, and Mr Alexander has also suggested a cost-benefit study of retaining a secondary department for just two pupils on the island of Out Skerries, which has a population of 90.

His proposals for closing one of the two Lerwick hostels for secondary pupils are designed to prevent rural parents opting for the six-year Anderson High instead of their local junior high. Parents who live within travelling distance of Lerwick will be charged up to Pounds 5,000 a year for hostel accommodation.

Further savings could be made by transferring responsibility for funding non-statutory elements of education, such as travelling teachers in music, art and physical education, to the council's charitable trust which is financed by oil revenues and is accumulating a surplus of Pounds 8 million a year.

The proposed closures will be hotly contested by councillors at the education committee on Monday as an assault on the rural fabric of the islands. Bill Smith, the veteran chairman who opposed Mr Alexander's appointment, made it clear he remains deeply unhappy. "Personally I don't want any cuts whatsoever, though I recognise that may be unrealistic," Mr Smith said.

Ian Spence, headteacher of the 850-pupil Anderson High, is also unhappy with Mr Alexander over his claim that the school has 23 teachers above national staffing standards, and could lose nine without any loss in efficiency.

"What concerns me is the blandness of this report," Mr Spence said. "The figures are not qualified. The national formula he uses is discredited throughout Scotland." The school had more staff partly because of high staying-on rates.

Mr Alexander admitted the closures would "generate considerable community hostility". But he insisted that some other areas of Scotland did as as well as Shetland, or better, with fewer resources.

The last official figures showed costs of Pounds 3,126 per Shetland primary pupil and Pounds 4,550 in secondary, against national averages of Pounds 1,767 and Pounds 2,760.

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