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.