Shetland Islands Council has agreed another change of course on its plans to cut back secondary education in rural areas following a huge groundswell of opposition from the affected communities.
Chairwoman of the local authority’s education committee Vaila Wishart won unanimous support from councillors for her motion calling for a report to “reconsider” the way ahead.
A proposal will now be drawn up to consult on either turning five junior highs – Aith, Baltasound, Mid Yell, Sandwick and Whalsay – into S1-S3 secondaries or closing them outright.
Councillors met in Lerwick Town Hall yesterday to discuss a proposal to transfer S3 and S4 pupils in Sandwick to the new Anderson High School in Lerwick from July 2016.
Children’s services director Helen Budge “reluctantly” recommended an S1-S2 option for Sandwick as marginally preferable to the status quo. But members sanctioned a rethink after hearing that Education Scotland was unconvinced by the case for an S1-S2 junior high.
The meeting came just 48 hours after more than 600 people marched through the streets of Lerwick in protest against the planned cuts. Walking under the Shetland-wide Cure (Communities United for Rural Education) banner, the protesters had left councillors under no illusion about the strength of feeling in the countryside.
Cure spokesman Gordon Thomson said he was glad the “pointless” S1-S2 option had been ditched, but said communities remained “apprehensive” about what the future holds.
“A stay of execution is the phrase that springs to mind,” he said. “I suppose it will be a case of seeing how the consultation goes with the other schools.”
Mrs Budge must now compile a report, including a revised timetable for more consultations, to go before councillors on July 1.
Afterwards Ms Wishart said it was important to get “all the facts and figures” in front of councillors. “It was clear from the consultation report that S1-S2 just didn’t stack up as members would have liked,” she said.
Ms Wishart added: “We have to provide the best education within a budget that is diminishing, so we have to look very carefully at what we’re doing.”
Mr Thomson said: “If we had five junior high schools as S1-S3 I suspect a lot of parent councils would be happy with that, relieved that they’re not going to be closed.
“But there’s an air of ‘divide and conquer’ about it because there are some more likely to be kept open than others.”