A little over 10 years ago – seems like a lifetime now – the family moved to Shetland to a house we hadn’t seen, apart from on the internet, into an area I’d never been to. Hell, I’d never really considered the existence of the Shetland Islands until I came here for a brief visit in January 2003, months before the move.
For those of you confused as to where the Shetland Islands are, I’m not surprised. They’re rarely in the right place on TV or road atlas maps. Most of the TV weather maps miss us out, having the UK cut off at the Orkney Islands if you’re lucky, or just off the north coast of Scotland if you’re not. If they’re on maps at all, they’re usually boxed out and moved to somewhere a little more convenient for the cartographer.
Roughly speaking, head north until you run out of land. Keep going, angled slightly east, and you’ll hit the Orkney Islands. Keep going further from there and you get to Shetland eventually. It’s an hour’s flight from Aberdeen, an hour and a half from Edinburgh or Glasgow. And it’s an overnight ferry crossing.
When we moved up here, we had 2 kids, 2 cats and a dog and I didn’t have a job to move to. Our house needed work, the garden needed a lot of work. Now, more than 10 years later, we’re moving south with 5 kids, 2 cats and I don’t have a job to move to. The house we’re moving to needs work and it’s garden likewise. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Looking out of the window across the bay at Gulberwick, watching the seals, orcas and dolphins play (not at the same time, that would be weird, but we have had all 3 of those species in the bay during our time here), I wonder why I’m doing this. Then I look at the Lego on the floor, the bomb-site teenager’s bedroom and remember: We’re moving for the kids.
Y’see Scotland doesn’t mess around with it’s education system very much. 10 years ago, the education here on Shetland was rated 2nd best in the whole of Scotland. The teachers haven’t changed – the system has. Hugely and, as far as those of us with eyes open can tell, dramatically for the worse. I’m not going to go into details. Suffice to say, I have tried sniping from outside the system, I have tried working within the system, and I have come to the same conclusion Big Al did in the Beiderbecke Trilogy: The only sensible thing you can say to a system is “Bollocks”. So we’re voting with our feet.
Shetland Islands Council have spent the last 10 years – and decades before that – pissing away money on pointless ventures, endless consultancy programs and putting off decisions until they absolutely had to make them. All the while they’ve been investing money in salmon farms belonging to relatives (failures all), a ferry between Shetland and Norway that doesn’t come here any more since there’s no money in the route, circular debates about whether to build a bridge or tunnel between close islands – with appropriate “fact-finding” missions to places in the world where these things have been done successfully. The end result of all of this is that they’re now having to make huge budget cuts right across their portfolio and everything is suffering. They pander to the vocal minorities all too easily.
For example. We have a nursery school on the island of Bressay. You know Bressay, it was the one with the archaeological dig and crap mobile reception in the TV show. The vast majority of parents living on Bressay put their kids to school in Lerwick because that’s where they work. Bressay school is kept open for 4 pupils, most of them from 1 family. It’s a crossing time of 5 minutes by ferry from Bressay to the mainland and then you’re in downtown Lerwick. This, by the way, is the island they can’t work out whether to build a bridge or dig a tunnel to.
Similar school examples exist all around the islands. Tiny schools on remote rocks kept operational for a handful of pupils at massive expense. While the main High School has boarding facilities enough to take the lot of them – and they all end up going there for highers anyway.
In the grand postcode lottery that is National 4/5 education in Scotland where, depending on your school and local authority, you can choose anywhere between 5 and 9 subjects to study, the Shetland Islands Council have seen a fantastic opportunity to save money. They have decreed (after lengthy public “consultation” – an exercise that appears to be “we have made up our mind but must have documentation to show we asked for people’s opinions on this”) that 7 subjects is sufficient. 3 sciences is not an option. Why would you want to do that when you’re only studying it for a year anyway? But it’s the council’s attitude to all this that has disgusted me the most.
Why consult if you’re not going to listen? Why spend millions of pounds getting in external agencies to carry out these lengthy exercises if you’re not going to pay a blind bit of attention to what the experts tell you? The parent councils were invited to a series of meetings recently to “consult” on 5 possible options for saving money. I say “consult”, I’m just guessing that the council have already picked one (by rolling a die, or throwing darts at a numbered board) and they’ll be massaging the comments and feedback they receive to make it look like we’re 95% behind their chosen option.
My former employer, the NAFC Marine Centre, is facing a merger with the other provider of tertiary education up here, Shetland College. This was proposed and accepted over a year ago. In that time nothing has happened and only now is a 3 year consultation beginning to look at how to think about getting it done. If they’re merged before 2020 I’ll eat a Raspberry Pi.
In the last 10 years, Shetland’s changed. It is still a beautiful place to live and work. It still has wonderful teachers doing the very best they can within the constraints imposed on them. But it is no longer somewhere I want to raise my kids.
I hope I’m wrong. But unless the SIC turns into a benevolent dictatorship rather than the petty, bickering, much-is-being-said-nothing-is-being-done, democracy it is now, I’m going to be in the right place.
We move in a week. Expect more posts like this one!