Education Scotland: Here are 7 key questions MSPs want answered ahead of the coming SNP-Green Budget
Schools, nurseries, colleges and universities are all under pressure as a result of rising costs and an ever greater public spending squeeze.
Ahead of next month’s Budget, MSPs on Holyrood’s education committee have been gathering evidence and holding hearings to identify the most important financial issues facing the sector.
Now, they have written to education secretary Jenny Gilruth setting out the problems they believe must be resolved, and the questions which require an answer.
Here is The Scotsman’s summary of the key points raised by the committee:
1) Will Scotland’s colleges and universities face budget cuts?
Last year, the Scottish Government announced “flat cash” spending plans for colleges and universities between 2022/23 and 2026/27, which equates to a real-terms cut in funding amid high inflation levels.
In an interview with The Scotsman in August, Ms Gilruth hinted at further cuts, highlighting that a “substantial” amount of education spending goes on further and higher education, while saying she sees “there is a difference” when she compares it to schools.
The education committee has now asked Ms Gilruth if the Government remains committed to flat-cash allocations for further and higher education until 2026/27. It also asked whether further financial flexibilities can be offered to colleges in the short term.
2) How will colleges cope with the huge number of job losses planned in the sector?
College staff are currently taking industrial action over pay, with the EIS-FELA trade union saying an offer to lecturers would be funded with the loss of over 400 jobs.
In its letter, the committee highlighted to Ms Gilruth the sector expects 1,000 to 1,500 job losses over five years. The MSPs have asked the Government for its response to these projections, as well as the likely impact on courses and equalities.
The committee also questioned why colleges are not subject to the “no compulsory redundancies policy” in place for much of the rest of the public sector.
3) Are universal free school meals the most effective way to support families?
The committee does not express opposition to universal free school meals, but raises concerns about the way the Government assesses the impact of policies.
It said the Government must prioritise its resources to where it can make the most impact on the outcomes for children and young people.
On the example of free school meals, it asked to see the evidence of its effectiveness, saying the MSPs were “concerned” that an evaluation of the impact of free meals for all pupils in P1 to P5 will not take place until after it is rolled out to all P6 and P7 pupils as well.
And they called for the Government to be “clear” about how ring-fenced funding to councils for specific policies, such as free school meals or funded childcare, will be uprated in future years.
4) What is being done to save private and voluntary sector nurseries from closure?
In August 2021, the number of hours of funded childcare that Scottish children were eligible for almost doubled, from 600 hours a year to 1,140 hours a year.
It now covers all three and four-year-olds, and could be expanded for one-year-olds and all two-year-olds.
But The Scotsman revealed in July that private nursery owners were considering taking legal action over the implementation of the policy, particularly the rates paid to them by councils, which they say is resulting staff shortages and an escalating number of closures. The committee said it was keen to see the findings of a review carried out into the level of rates.
5) How will the SNP deliver its pledge to cut teachers’ class contact time?
The SNP’s 2021 manifesto promised to reduce teachers' class contact time by 90 minutes per week, to 21 hours. The move would ease the pressure on staff by allowing more time for preparation and marking.
However, teaching unions say “little or no progress” has been made towards meeting the target. The Government, which has also pledged to increase the number of teachers by 3,500 during this Parliament, penalises councils which fail to maintain teacher numbers.
But local education chiefs have criticised the move, saying they cannot understand the logic in areas where pupil numbers are falling.
Education committee members agreed the “strict focus” on teacher numbers can be “difficult to understand”, although it recognised that more teachers would be needed to cut class contact time.
In its letter, the MSPs asked the Government how it intends to deliver the commitment to reduce contact time.
6) How is the Government funding pay deals for teachers and other school staff?
In March, a pay deal was reached to end teaching strikes, with the package worth £188 million between 2021/22 and 2023/24.
Meanwhile, to fund a proposed pay deal for non-teaching school staff, it has been suggested that authorities would need to “re-profile” contributions to the 2024/25 budget of Redress Scotland, which makes payments to survivors of historical child abuse.
Holyrood’s education committee said it was looking for “further reassurance” from Ms Gilruth that “this reprofiling will not adversely affect day-to-day spending and decision making in relation to the redress scheme”. It also asked for more information about how central and local government was funding the teachers’ pay award agreed in March.
7) How much are councils spending on pupils with additional support needs (ASN)?
Concerns have been raised about “inconsistencies” in the way local authorities record spending on support for pupils with ASN.
In its letter to Ms Gilruth, the committee asks for an update on talks between Scottish Government and Cosla on a standardised approach to collecting data on ASN spend.
It also requests details of future plans for the Scottish Attainment Challenge (SAC), a £200m-a-year scheme aimed at reducing the poverty related-attainment gap.
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