Democracy gets the boot at Shetland Islands Council in vote on closing Out Skerries secondary school

There is turbulence in Shetland not only at the Council’s decision to close the secondary department of the small rural school serving the economically substantial island community at Out Skerries – but at the way that decision was taken.

There are two issue here. One – the case for closing the secondary education provision at Skerries – is complex. The second – the manipulation and the management of the vote to close -  could not be simpler. It was procedurally and morally wrong; and it undermines the democratic principle.

The council was evenly split on the matter – twice. This was resolved twice – once at the Education Committee by its Chair and once at the full council by its Convener, each by the use of a casting vote.

On one of these occasions the vote was not only resolved in this manner, it had been indefensibly pre-manipulated to prevent its loss.

The council has two religious representatives on the Education Committee, each with a vote.

At the vote, one – Martin Tregonning -  voted for the closure; and one – Radina McKay – abstained.

Ms McKay  – known to have been opposed to the closure – made it publicly known afterwards that she had been asked by councillors not to vote, hence her abstention.

While, in not voting with her conscience – as a religious representative – Ms McKay will have to live with her reasons for complying with the highly improper request she has alleged, such a request, if put to her, ought never to have been made.

The vote is the foundation of democracy. To ask someone not to use their vote is asking them to agree to a form of democratic castration.

Worse than that. When the vote  in question is still tied, to decide a matter that has the capacity to condemn an ageing community to terminal decline on a casting vote is ill-judged in the extreme, especially when the tie itself has been improperly achieved.

This is a complex and difficult matter. Closing a secondary education provision for a couple of pupils, necessarily minimally staffed, and transferring them to Anderson High School in Lerwick and week-night school hostel accommodation, is not the same scale of threat to a community’s sustainability as is the closure of its primary school.

But Skerries has been fighting for decades to retain its secondary provision – and has had to resist 6 formal attempts to close it within 12 years. This is no less than sadistic.

In this case, with two votes tied, even with the removal from the vote of one known opposer, the democratic imperative is that if you have not won the case, you ought not to deliver a win by the force majeure of a casting vote.

In fact, the principle of casting votes is itself primitively undemocratic, however procedurally legal they may be.

On the first occasion where the casting vote was used -  by the Chair of the Education Committee – the vote was tied on a sensible compromise proposal by a councillor, Gary Cleaver. He proposed that the council should consider retaining secondary education on the island for pupils at S1 and S2 only.

We note that Shetland Council has also seemed like Hicksville in its debate on the matter. The ‘Brian Blessed’ figure of Councillor Jonathan Wills announced to the meeting that Anderson High School in Lerwick – whose academic record is modest – was ‘better than Eton’. Aye right.

Shetland deserves much better than this from its council, in wider awareness of the realities and in respect for democracy.

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22 Responses to Democracy gets the boot at Shetland Islands Council in vote on closing Out Skerries secondary school

  1. Clearly I wasn’t at either meeting however I have heard that Radina McKay was advised during the education committee that it wasn’t council policy for her to abstain. If that was the case you have to wonder why she did. Saying she was asked to isn’t really a good enough excuse.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 15 Thumb down 0

    • @Integrity,

      It being council policy that she was entitled to vote doesn’t preclude her being prevailed upon by councillors to vote with them.

      Is not what is remarkable that she refused to follow her unelected colleague who voted for closure and told the committee what had been going on and as a result of making it known, SHE is the one taking the flak!

      Unless she spills the beans about the whole deal no-one will find out what pressure was applied.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

      • Andrew,

        I think there is a lack of clarity about who said what to who. It would appear she was asked not to vote and that is inappropriate. However my information,which I acknowledge could be erroneous, is that she was perfectly aware she had every right to vote and there was no need for her to abstain.

        If she was firmly opposed to the closure then why abstain? The question I suppose is ‘what was said to her that persuaded her to abstain?’

        It is all very well telling people what happened afterwards but there is a little bit of stable door bolting about that.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

        • Agreed and if she hadn’t spilled the beans and had voted with her colleague as was, presumably, the objective of such “persuasion” as was applied, it would have all slid quietly through, under the radar and no-one would ever have known.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

          • The persuasion appears to have been to prevent her voting in opposition to her colleague thus allowing the vote to be tied and the chair getting the casting vote.

            Why was she persuaded not to vote but her colleague not? Or is that not what transpired?

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

          • @Integrity,

            That is what, reportedly, transpired.

            As to whether the alleged persuasion was applied to both unelected representatives and only one resisted and spoke out, we may never know, however cynics may imagine all kinds of scenarios.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  2. Just a bit puzzled with the relevance in singling out the two religious reps. on the committee who’s votes carried such weight. They like the others should have voted with thought out calculated logic, conscience a counterweight.
    A religious background, be they ministers, priests, church organists should not make them any better qualified in decision making than those without.
    The supposed fact that one rep has allowed herself to be swayed is as you say for her conscience to wrestle with, same goes for those who may have coerced, however those of a religious persuasion do not have monopoly on conscience.

    Grim reading though, if that is what she claims has any substance. If her conscience permits her to risk this closure potentially adversely affecting the communities long term could her conscience also allow her to be economical with the truth, religious or not?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  3. You mention ‘a couple of pupils’, and presumably there are only a few primary school children in such a small community, so I wonder at just what the savings are in closing the secondary department – I get the impression that there are remote places around the world where parents successfully educate their kids beyond primary age, and I wonder if there are teachers able to single-handedly cover both primary and secondary tuition, if the numbers are really small?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 3

    • from wiki, there were 3 Secondary school pupils in 2010, the islands have a population of slightly less than 80

      As for democracy, the education committee is made up with 23% unelected religious members, not very democratic in my opinion

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  4. Newsie, “the manipulation and the management of the vote to close – could not be simpler. It was procedurally and morally wrong; and it undermines the democratic principle”

    Exactly what democratic principle is undermined when an unelected member of the committee abstains???

    Integrity says she was advised that ‘it wasn’t council policy for her to abstain’. True or not? (my money is on Integrity)

    What would have been a TOTAL affront to democracy would have been if these unelected ‘members’ had voted to keep this ‘school’ open and against the wishes of the majority of the elected members.

    I would suggest that in our increasingly secular society (with church attendances of all denominations plummeting)it’s time this throwback (unelected religious members on education committees) was consigned to the dustbin of history. Either that or get a Jedi priest and/or Hobbit minister on the Committee.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 11 Thumb down 9

    • Good old Simon, as usual, you have it upside down. You said:

      “What would have been a TOTAL affront to democracy would have been if these unelected ‘members’ had voted to keep this ‘school’ open and against the wishes of the majority of the elected members.”

      What if the majority of democratically elected members of the education committee wanted to help this tiny, ageing, island community that contributes so much to the Scottish economy by keeping its secondary school open and they were thwarted by the pro-closure people’s manipulation of unelected people whose combined vote swung the decision in favour of closure, would that not be a total affront to democracy?

      Because if you read the online local media reports, as I have done, you will see that that is exactly what happened. Had the lady who abstained voted with her conscience, in opposition to her unelected colleague who voted FOR CLOSURE, this latest in a long line of closure attempts would have failed.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

  5. @Simon,
    If you had run a brief check of the local Shetland news media you would have found that, had there been no unelected religious representatives, democracy would have taken its course and the proposal to close the school would have failed at its first test. It would have been “filed under ‘R’” and you wouldn’t be hearing about it, now.
    However, one religious representative voted for closure while the other abstained, stating at the meeting that she would have opposed closure but had been “asked not to vote by councillors”.
    My complaint to a Shetland news blog covers several issues: http://www.shetnews.co.uk/letters/7771-odious-piece-of-democracy-thwarting
    I would recommend a quick look over it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  6. I agree Simon. Just now local authorities have to have religious representation on their education committee as a legislative requirement. It is a legislative requirement which is covered in cobwebs now and really needs to be repealed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 4

    • @Integrity,

      Agreed on the religious reps but the issue is, if they hadn’t been there or had voted one each way, the school would be staying open. Democracy was hi-jacked.

      Given the history of the Christian martyrs, one wonders what pressure was applied to persuade a person of the cloth not to vote with her conscience.

      By the way, she had the courage to “blow the gaff” on what happened.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  7. Agreeing with Simon and Integrity but in Argyl & Bute Council the unelected officers make all the decsions. How much does sectarian education cost the taxpayer?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 3

  8. The Shetland Island Council falls back on its old tactic of coercion of committee members to get the vote it wants. This was a favoured tatic by used by senior SIC officers and so called ‘senior councillors’ during the disastrous tenure of the previous Council under Convener Cluness – this new lot under new leaders Bell & Robinson is no different.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  9. As a pretty lukewarm fan of Crown Prince Alexander and his SNP courtiers I’ve dished out plenty of criticism of them, not least, of Mike Russel for his role in the A&BC shenanigans, in the past.

    Credit where it’s due, however. The SG’s proposed amendment to the 2010 Schools (etc) Act, recently highlighted by Newsie in an article about our own rural schools here in Argyll, is badly needed.

    A&B Council, despite the best attempts of others to compete in the ongoing “race to the democratic bottom”, is surely in “pole position” to win the “woodem spoon.”

    If the requirements of the proposed amendment were already in force this tiny remote community would have been spared the continuous stress of repeated school closure attempts and the addition of
    a “presumption against closure” and a “five year ban on repeating failed closure attempts” provide a ray of hope for Argyll islands whose communities find themselves in a similar predicament.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  10. Thank you for your coverage of this shameful episode which I think has considerable significance for how similar situations in Argyll may be treated in future.

    Readers may be interested to know, for the record, that their local MP, Education Minister Mike Russell has, surprisingly, decided not to call this one in but to allow it to proceed.

    By the time the Scottish government’s amendment to the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act, 2010 becomes law, the councils will have already railroaded through all the closures they want.

    So much for the ‘presumption against closure of rural schools’!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

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