2 August 2013
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The reality of island life struck me square between the eyes on Monday night. A public meeting in the Bressay Hall discussed the potential closure of the island’s school. I confess to an emotional attachment. It seems only yesterday that Ewan Anderson and I were the Primary 1 class. My oldest children were part of a school roll that numbered 53. Next month the projected roll is just 6. So the educational argument is that children need pals of their own age to play and learn with.
The big question was how can an island whose population is static see such a fall in school numbers? Bressay was a commuter isle when my kids were at school. Little has changed. The economic circumstances are similar. The major employer is the Bressay fish meal factory. So economically active islanders have a main income generated on the Shetland mainland. Thus the ferry is the key to Bressay life. We have sadly had too many years of uncertainty over ferry policy. The permanent crew is far less. Men tend to be on short term contracts and now crew numbers are being cut. The timetable is being reduced along with all inter-island ferries around Shetland and ferry fares rise remorselessly above the level of inflation. In 1994 the ferry crew numbered 18 and most had families and therefore children at the Bressay school. Time moves on and children grow up. The island then lived through the debacle of the bridge that never was. All that is now academic. No bridge or tunnel will happen for the foreseeable future. The SIC has no capital funds. In recent years the ferry has increasingly replied on men who live in the island only when on duty. No wonder. No-one could buy or build a house never mind move a family and children to Bressay when there was no certainty over their work and they are on short term contracts.
As with other island ferry crews the uncertainty over the SICs ferry policy meant men have chosen other marine careers with greater security. Who can blame them. There have been occasions on Bressay Sound as with other Shetland crossings that were it not for the goodwill of staff who filled when on their day off the service would have simply stopped.
Then there is the cost. Daily commuters spend more than £2,500 a year on fares. That is before they buy a tank of petrol at Shetland’s exorbitant prices. It costs a lot to live on a Shetland island. Bressay is next to Lerwick yet separated by a high fare ferry journey. In recent years the SIC has pushed fares higher and higher. The Council face enormous financial pressures. So a new fares policy is we are told, imminent. Until fare policy is clear why would young families relocate to any of Shetland’s islands despite the undoubted advantages that island life brings? That is the fundamental question our Council needs to address in making decisions about schools.