July 10, 2008

Delays for Plans to Axe Schools in PPP Upgrade The Only Remaining Junior Secondaries in Scotland Have Had a Temporary Reprieve, Writes Fiona MacLeod, After Parents Forced Councillors into a Costly U- Turn

By Fiona MacLeod

THEY are said to be relic of a past era in education and cost as much as GBP 2 million a year extra to run, yet parents are fighting tooth and nail to save them. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) is the only local authority in Scotland that still maintains junior secondary schools in its estate.

Earlier this year, when the council made steps towards closing all seven of the S1-S2 schools, the move sparked a furore across the islands.

Councillors were in a quandary, caught between supporting the strident voices of their electorate, or making practical moves to cut the more than GBP 7m that the council spends on education.

The plan would have seen all junior secondaries across the Hebrides close over the next five years, with five new schools built under a public-private partnership (PPP).

Pupils would be moved to the four senior secondaries, which would become S1-6 schools, but many residents were reluctant to see the tradition change and baulked at sending their 11-12 year-olds to schools further away from home.

The seven S1-S2 schools are a historical anomaly dating from the days before the comprehensive system was introduced in the 1970s.

They were retained in some rural areas in Scotland as junior secondaries, to educate the youngest high school years.

The last two councils to retain them, outwith the Western Isles, were in Orkney and Shetland, but even they ditched them several years ago.

Votes were taken by the council to close four of the schools earlier this year, but the authority was forced into a climb-down after councillors voted against closing the other three a fortnight ago.

The council ruled that all seven schools should be treated the same - so closure of the first four has been put on ice and the one school that councillors did vote to close last month has been given a reprieve.

Education experts from the mainland have now been drafted in as consultants to look at solutions before a final decision is made in September.

After the U-turn was made, the council's education chairman, Murdo MacLeod, described it as "irresponsible".

Morag Munro, the chairwoman of the council's education committee, said she even considered resigning in frustration, although she has decided to stay in her post.

Yesterday, an education summit was held to privately discuss the issue in more detail. MacLeod stresses the original decision to close four of the schools still stood, and adds: "They have just deferred it pending a report."

MacLeod paints a picture of falling rolls, Scotland-wide budget cuts and an incoming new school curriculum that would change the way children are taught: "The roll in 1977 was 6,300, at the time of the most recent intake 30 years later, in August 2007, the total roll in the Western Isles was 3,850.

"In association with falling rolls we have tightening financial settlements, we have too many schools for the number of children and the impossible task of maintaining all these buildings and providing them with schools for the 21st century."

An added complication, he claims, is the forthcoming new school curriculum and related changes to the exams system.

MacLeod says the greater flexibility offered by Curriculum for Excellence means children in the S1-S2 schools risk being held back if they cannot rise up to the learning level that suits them.

The report on the issue will also explores how the curriculum would be implemented at the island's junior schools.

One solution may be to convert the schools to S1-3 schools, but that would not solve the spiralling running costs.

However, Fiona Hyslop, the education secretary, says she sees no reason why the new curriculum could not be taught in the current schools, and it should not be used as an excuse to close them.

Under the original plan, Bayble High School in Lewis and Daliburgh High School in South Uist would close next year, along with four primary schools: Craigston in Barra, Staoinebrig in South Uist, Cliasmol in Harris and Brgar in Lewis.

Sgoil nan Loch in Lewis and Paible High School in North Uist would close in 2009.

They would be followed by the closures of Shiaboist, Lionail, and Back High Schools, with the final closure in 2013.

After the meeting two weeks ago, Munro warned the U-turn would bring financial repercussions.

She said: "Another delay has meant that the project could be set back further and every week that goes past we lose GBP 70,000."

Councillor Angus McCormack from Stornoway, said he was "very unhappy" with the final outcome, and that "we have failed to act as a responsible council".

Parents in all the affected communities have joined together to campaign for the status quo. However, MacLeod had said this was not possible because of the curriculum concerns.

Angus Campbell, the council's viceconvener, told councillors at the time: "Look at all the projects which will be affected if we can't find money. All these projects are in the very same rural communities we are talking about here."

An option to maintain the provision in all schools in Lewis until completion of a new Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, already in the pipeline, failed to secure support.

Point councillor Donald John MacSween compared the council to the Grand Old Duke of York nursery rhyme, saying: "They marched us up to the top of the hill and marched us back down again."

Parents on the Western Isles are determined to save their schools and councillors know their seats are at risk if they defy their voters' wishes.

At the final vote on closure plans due on 4 September, the only thing that can be guaranteed is that the decision will be awaited with bated breath.

Its outcome may well sign the death knell for the last of Scotland's junior secondary schools.

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