Just 24 hours ahead of tomorrow’s deadline for local authorities to respond to the finance secretary’s funding deal for 2016-17, more than a dozen bosses issued a joint statement to Mr Swinney warning of “potentially devastating consequences” for spending on schools and nurseries.
The warning puts some of Scotland’s biggest councils on a collision course with the Scottish Government as stage one of its budget bill comes before MSPs at Holyrood on Wednesday. Scotland’s 32 councils have until tomorrow to respond to the deal, which includes agreeing to freeze council tax for the ninth successive year, maintain teacher-pupil ratios and accept a legally contentious demand to merge health and social care.
Mr Swinney has already been warned by councils that his funding package could be challenged through the courts after he said local authorities would be denied their share of the £408 million he has set aside for the deal unless they accept his demands.
The joint statement by 14 Labour-led councils warns of cuts of £130m (4.4 per cent) next year, to schools, nurseries and childcare, which the council leaders said would make Scotland’s children “suffer”.
The council chiefs warned that the spending plans risk “undermining” their efforts to close the attainment gap in schools and may harm the life chances of young Scots.
Signatories include Aberdeen leader Jenny Laing, Edinburgh leader Andrew Burns, Glasgow leader Frank McAveety, Stirling leader Johanna Boyd, Fife leader David Ross and Falkirk leader Craig Martin.
The statement said: “We believe the SNP government’s proposed hundreds of millions of pounds worth of further cuts to local authority funding in this year’s budget will pull the rug out from under Scotland’s young people.
“Scottish Labour-led councils will do everything we possibly can to mitigate these cuts, but the reality is that SNP government budget decisions will have potentially devastating consequences for education in Scotland.
“We call on John Swinney to think again and back Scottish Labour’s plan to properly fund education services over the next five years so we can give our children and young people the best start in life.”
The call for a reversal of cuts to education was also signed by the leaders of the councils for East Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire, Inverclyde, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and West Lothian. Scottish ministers are accused by the council leaders of making more then £1 billion of cuts to local authority budgets during the past five years and of presiding over job losses in schools since the SNP came to power in 2007.
The statement added: “One of the most important responsibilities of local government is to provide the best education possible for our children and young people.
“That starts with early years learning through nurseries and childcare, and then goes on to primary and secondary school.
“In the last five years, the SNP government has cut over £1bn from local authority budgets.
“Despite the best efforts of councils of all political colours and the dedication of the people who work with our young people daily, the reality is that there are fewer teachers, classroom assistants and support staff in our schools than there were in 2007, seriously undermining our efforts to close the attainment gap.”
However, a Scottish Government spokesman insisted Mr Swinney’s spending plans would protect teacher numbers and other areas of education provision.
The spokesman said: “This government is committed to delivering both excellence and equity in equal measure for all children in Scotland.
“Our funding proposals for local government deliver a strong but challenging financial settlement, despite cuts to the central budget by the UK government, and will protect the pupil-teacher ratio and help improve attainment. Furthermore, we do not recognise the figures being claimed on the Scottish Government’s education budget.
“Since 2007, revenue spent on schools and pupils has risen, while councils are planning to spend 3.3 per cent more in cash terms on the delivery of education in 2015-16 – the largest increase in six years.”