The cost of cutbacks

Edinburgh headteachers were last month asked by the council to enter an exercise in ranking “priorities for saving” – not so much turkeys being asked to vote for Christmas, as being asked to decide their preferred form of slaughter.

Edinburgh, like many Scottish councils, implemented serious cuts this financial year. It then considered reducing secondary schools’ budgets by a further £1.55 million.

As well as heating and administration, the council estimated that the main headings under consideration – Flexibility Funding, Positive Action Funding, and Discipline Task Group Funding – would have led to a loss of some 35 secondary teaching posts.

Behaviour Support Bases and relatively small classes in Higher and Advanced Higher, especially in the less popular subjects, would have gone.

However, a remarkably united body of heads refused to participate in an exercise to whitewash these cuts. They agreed unanimously not to submit individual lists of “palatable” savings.

Instead they submitted a collective response to the city, stating that further cuts could not be borne by the city’s schools without impacting substantially and negatively on the education of its young people.

They advised councillors to aim instead to return school-based budgets “to the level they were at before the cuts”, and to reject the concept that previously ringfenced budgets, such as Discipline Task Group monies, could be easily removed, and that these have, in fact, “become essential ‘core’ funding for schools and not add-ons”.

Other points stressed included a rejection of the concordat between the Scottish government and the councils to freeze council tax. Frozen income and rising costs inevitably presage service cuts.

The council itself also came in for criticism for badly mishandling, but not achieving, an estate rationalisation package aimed at closing 23 schools, a package which would have achieved substantial economies of scale and reduced budget pressures.

The results, a year and a half later, are the forthcoming closure of only three primary schools and the achievement of only marginal savings.

This week came a body blow as education chief, councillor Marilyne MacLaren, informed Edinburgh secondary headteachers that – although the budgetary cuts might not be as swinging as first feared, and that there would be no further “efficiency savings” from school budgets – it could no longer be assumed that no secondary schools in the city would be considered for closure until 2011.

Officials are now actively reviewing a range of schools with a view to a further and early programme of school closures.

As mentioned earlier, the council had introduced a programme of estate rationalisation in 2007 that involved the proposed closure of 24 educational establishments.

After significant opposition was expressed across the city, most of these proposals were withdrawn and only three schools were closed.

In the middle of this minefield, the politicians are ethically lost.

The Labour Party left a major budget deficit when it lost power in 2007 and initiated the school closure programme, but is now campaigning actively against the cuts and against closures.

The Liberal-SNP coalition is committed (as are all the major parties, including Labour) to the concordat and the council tax freeze and now seems willing to allow the schools threatened with closure to gradually expire as numbers fall and resources disappear.

The Conservatives have argued for even tighter council budgets, but have supported specific school parents in their campaigns against closures.

However, it is not only in Edinburgh that such issues are looming.

The number of Scottish teachers in employment has fallen to the lowest in two years despite promises that, to support smaller classes, teacher numbers would be maintained even if rolls fell.

The number of teachers claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance has risen from 155 in 2005 to 400. Labour-controlled Glasgow is about to see its teacher numbers fall by 78 and cash-strapped Liberal-SNP Aberdeen needs to find £25 million of savings.

As we head towards local council budgets, Edinburgh headteachers’ refusal to justify the cuts by making a list of acceptable reductions will be only the first of many major rows on school funding in Scotland.


The above artcile was first published in SecEd on 5 February 2009: http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/cgi-bin/go.pl/article/article.html?uid=38790;type_uid=1;section=News
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