THE prospect of Scottish youngsters starting school at the age of six is being considered by cash-strapped councils who say it could be “better” for their education, MSPs have been told.
Holyrood’s education committee was told there was not a single education budget free from the threat of the axe as councils face up to massive budget cuts.
Douglas Chapman, of the umbrella body, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), said front-line education had escaped the worst effect of the cuts in recent years, but it was now difficult to offer that “level of protection as much as we would want to do”.
However, education secretary Michael Russell warned against any cuts in teachers numbers, saying this would not help drive up attainment.
John Stodter of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES) said the axe has already fallen in a wide range of schools’ budgets.
“There isn’t a single budget in the education service that isn’t being considered somewhere for a potential reduction” he told MSPs yesterday. But he said cutting a “little bit from everything” was the wrong approach.
“Our view is that it may be time to take a step back and look at the whole system to see whether there are single big decisions rather than many, many small ones which have the effect of making the system more disparate and more difficult to see the effect of the reductions.”
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This would require political agreement and assurances no-one loses out. He added: “I’m not suggesting this, but people have talked about the age at which children start school. Some schools and authorities say that six-years-old could be a better time to start school education.
“If that were to be educationally proven then you would have to ensure families weren’t disadvantaged, and that you had a system that could support children starting at six and you were confident that it was going to lead to improved outcomes.”
Some subjects such as German could be taken “online” if they are not available at any local secondary school, Mr Chapman said. Secondaries could also become hubs for particular subjects which were not generally available in a given area.
Cosla has indicated the present commitment to protect teacher numbers should be ditched in favour of a greater focus on the outcomes for pupils.
Mr Chapman said: “Whether there is a direct link between a fall in teacher numbers and maintaining the level of attainment you want to see or improvement in attainment – I think the jury is out on that one but nevertheless it would have an impact in terms of teachers I’m sure.”
Mr Russell said: “There is strong argument for imagining and putting in place better ways of delivering, for example, shared services. [But] I don’t believe you can drive up attainment and improve outcomes with fewer teachers.”
He said it was “perfectly possible” to increase teacher numbers “provided the resources are provided”, but said people must recognise “the realities of finance, austerity and the roles of Scottish local authorities – in particular Labour authorities”.
“If there is no agreement on outcomes, then the sanctions will continue,” he said. “They haven’t been lifted, but they are not going to be operated while we have this discussion.”
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