Dani Garavelli: School cuts are no laughing matter

Education Secretary Mike Russell at Eastwood High School.  Picture: Robert Perry

Education Secretary Mike Russell at Eastwood High School. Picture: Robert Perry

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WHILE politicians play the blame game, teachers and parents warn that our schools can’t afford to make the swingeing cuts they now face, writes Dani Garavelli

THE IDEAS were coming thick and fast and they made for depressing reading; as local authorities unveiled plans for swingeing cuts last week, it was clear that front-line education – once a sacred cow – was not going to escape unscathed. Having long ago made the “easy” savings, they were now proposing radical measures such as larger class sizes, shared headteachers and even a cut in school hours.

One proposal being considered is to raise the age at which children start school. Picture: Getty

One proposal being considered is to raise the age at which children start school. Picture: Getty

New Curriculum for Excellence

Such drastic changes would have been hard to stomach at any time. But they have come just as teachers are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel in terms of implementing the new Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). This year will see the last plank – the new Highers – being widely introduced, although a number of schools have opted to leave this until next year.

Now many inside and outside of education are questioning the point of creating and introducing the new curriculum – which is intended to create a more rounded approach to learning and narrow the attainment gap – if central and local government are unwilling or unable to invest in its continuing success. Given that last year’s introduction of the National 4 and 5 exams was plagued by claims of over-assessment and heavy workloads, Scotland’s largest teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) says further re­ductions in spending could make CfE unworkable.

Merging Schools

Highland Council is talking about merging schools and cutting the primary school day from 25 hours to 22 1/2 hours a week, although there has been no detail as to what aspect of the ever-expanding curriculum – PE, music, drama, French? – would be sacrificed to obtain the estimated £3.2m a year savings.

In Inverclyde, councillors have ­proposed that several schools should share one head teacher. And East Renfrewshire is planning to cut full-time librarians and replace them with a combination of part-time librarians and senior pupils helping out on a voluntary basis to save £131,000 a year.

Meanwhile, at Holyrood’s Education and Culture Committee, the full implications of cuts are becoming clear. Local government umbrella group Cosla is arguing for an end to sanctions for cutting teacher numbers. They have previously been protected under an agreement between the government and local authorities, but that agreement comes to an end next year, and Cosla argues it should not be renewed. Education Secretary Mike Russell has suspended the sanctions while discussions on the 2015/16 budget are carried out, but EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan insists any reduction in the number of teachers could prove very damaging.

‘Class sizes are already approaching the maximum’

“It has been acknowledged by all concerned that teachers went the extra mile to make sure the new CfE qualifications were delivered,” he says. “In our survey, 81 per cent of teachers reported their own workload being excessive to the point of being unsustainable. Class sizes are already approaching the maximum in most of the subject areas and a number of local authorities such as Glasgow are looking at delivering Advanced Highers outside school because they can’t provide the services inside school. If you cut the number of teachers, you intensify the workload for those who are left and reduce the choice of subjects offered in secondary.”

As for the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES), it mooted the idea of moving the school starting age back to six. This policy works well in Scandinavian countries where high-quality nursery provision is a priority, but has been met with bemusement by parents in Scotland where Glasgow City Council won a court battle to be allowed to employ heads who were not qualified teachers at some of its nurseries.

Scotland’s biggest local authorities have revealed they will have to make tens of millions of pounds of cuts in 2015/16. After years of austerity and the council tax freeze, those within education were already braced for cuts to front-line services. “Our organisation was aware that the grip of the financial situation has been tightening for the last few years, and we knew local authorities had been making cuts at head office, so it was inevitable,” says Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC).

‘So we are not surprised, but we are horrified.’

She says parents report a reduction in support staff – although official statistics don’t reflect that. “So we are not surprised, but we are horrified. Our attitude is that what local authorities have been doing is salami-slicing and that can’t continue. They can’t keep cutting bits off and maintain a functioning, progressive education system.”

Predictably, the stark warnings from Cosla and ADES have sparked another round of buck-passing.

Under fire for falling teacher numbers (down 4,021 since the SNP came into power) and for cuts in bursaries for the poorest students, Russell last week criticised Labour MSP Neil Bibby for campaigning for a No vote.

“If possible, I would provide additional resource. You campaigned recently for a system that drives down the Scottish budget and you can shift in your seat all you want, that’s the reality,” he said as his political opponents pointed out that education is wholly devolved.

“One of the difficulties we have is it’s the local authorities who are the em­ployers and who make these decisions and they turn round and blame Mike Russell,” says Flanagan. “If you approach Mike Russell, he will turn round 
and blame George Osborne. There is a sense that responsibility has to be taken by all parties in terms of how you protect those services we all believe are ­important.”

The Learned Societies’ Group

So who is responsible for the current state of affairs? And, with no end to the austerity programme in sight, what can be done to resolve it? It is true that spending by the Westminster government has gone down, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies last week claimed loopholes in the Barnett Formula have protected Scotland from millions of pounds of cuts experienced elsewhere in the UK. At the same time, a report by the Learned Societies’ Group (LSG) suggested 25 per cent less was spent on teaching science in Scotland than in England.

As for local authorities, they have been affected by the freeze on council tax and their ability to make savings has been limited both by the sanctions for reducing teacher numbers and the fact that teachers’ salaries are set at a national level. The Scottish Government’s concordat with local government gives councils much greater flexibility over their spending; it ended the ring-fencing of the education budget, empowering them to make their own decisions and use money once allocated for a specific purpose as they saw fit. The Scottish Government’s hands-off approach allows local authorities to tailor their provision of services to local need, but it also makes it difficult to hold them to account. According to the Accounts Commission, Scottish councils have cut spending on education by 5 per cent in real terms since 2010/11. The freedom granted to local authorities has also led to inconsistencies in the quality and choice of education available across the country. The postcode lottery element of the system was highlighted last year, when it emerged pupils in some schools would have the opportunity to sit just six National 5s while pupils in others could sit as many as nine.

Flanagan believes the education budget should be ring-fenced and that minimum standards around teacher numbers, class sizes and the number of hours pupils are in school should be decided nationally and enshrined in law. He also believes more radical changes should be motivated by a desire to improve learning rather than to cut costs. There are, for instance, plenty of people who are in favour of raising the school starting age. At the moment, a child born between mid-August and the end of February will begin P1 when they are four, unless their parents hold them back. Some children who start early lack motor skills and spend their primary school years struggling to catch up with their peers. Those children who start school at four are also forced to stay on for part of fifth year even if they would prefer to leave and are not motivated to learn. In his book Schooling Scotland, University of Edinburgh senior teaching fellow Danny Murphy argues that all children should have passed their fifth birthday before they move on from nursery.

Finland’s highly regarded educational system

In Finland’s highly regarded educational system, children start school at seven after spending several years in subsidised day care and one year in pre-school. Earlier this month, the SPTC backed Murphy’s idea in the hopes it would both create savings and raise attainment. But ADES’s suggestion is more radical and raises more questions than it answers. If the whole point is to cut costs, what kind of pre-school provision would be on offer for four and five-year-olds? And would working parents – who already spend a large proportion of their salaries on pre-school child care – end up footing much of the bill?

The idea of reducing the number of promoted posts – as is being suggested in Inverclyde – may also be superficially appealing, as it doesn’t reduce teacher numbers. But Flanagan says successful delivery of CfE depends on strong leadership. “If you look at everything that has been discussed about Scottish education it keeps coming back to leadership, leadership, leadership,” he says. As a former English teacher, Flanagan is also frustrated about the proposal to cut down the number of school librarians in East Renfrewshire. “This may seem like a soft target, but being a librarian is not just a question of stamping out books. They are graduate professionals and often the linchpins of school literacy programmes, which may grind to a halt when they are removed.”

More broadly, there seems to be a contradiction between cuts in front-line education and government policies on child protection, particularly the controversial “named person” legislation. With children spending so much of their lives at school, teachers are ideally placed to pick up on signs of neglect and abuse. But if, as has been suggested, the number of pupils allocated to each pastoral teacher increases, then the likelihood of them noticing small changes in mood or behaviour is diminished. Equally, if teachers are having to cater for the needs of pupils who would once have had additional classroom support, they have less time to invest in building relationships with everyone else.

Like Cosla and ADES, the EIS and the SPTC believe there needs to be a radical rethink around education in Scotland. Flanagan advocates a shift away from austerity. “I’m not saying you should end the council tax freeze, but you certainly have to look at its implications,” he says.

“And the Scottish Parliament already has tax-raising powers. Our view is that if you want good public services then they have to be funded and, if that means you have to have a progressive tax system, then so be it. At the moment everyone seems to be focused on playing the blame game and on austerity and no-one is talking about how you challenge it.”

The SPTC is also in favour of a review of how education is delivered in Scotland. “We have been asking for a while if having 32 local authorities – each with its own director – is really the best we can do? Neither Cosla nor ADES supports a wholesale review of how we do education, but then turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.”

‘The salaries of chief executives are quite phenomenal’

Flanagan says the government could look at streamlining the corporate structures of local authorities. “There seems to be a growth in managers in some of them,” he says. “The salaries of chief executives are quite phenomenal – if you look across 32 councils, that’s a lot of money in the top tier.” However, reforms on this scale are unlikely to be on the ­table this side of the next Scottish election in 2016, so more arguments over cuts to front-line services seem inevitable. As fresh proposals continue to be revealed – the cancelling of swimming lessons here, the reduction in funding for supported study there – teachers and pupils must surely reflect on all the effort that has been expended on the introduction of the CfE, and wonder if it was worth it. «

Twitter: @ DaniGaravelli1

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