Kezia Dugdale: Cutting school cash just doesn't add up

WHICH council services would you be willing to cut to save money? I don't think there will be too much opposition if one official car is axed from the three-strong fleet used by the city's Lord Provost. Refusing to undertake repairs of common property in tenements will be somewhat more controversial.

Music tuition could be halved under council budgets cuts being discussed. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Music tuition could be halved under council budgets cuts being discussed. Picture: Ian Georgeson

And what about closing all-but-two of the Capital’s public toilets? Well, that will surely be taking the proverbial.

The revelations in the Evening News in recent days about the budget proposals from council officials make for grim reading.

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We should, however, be grateful for this public service journalism which has ensured residents across the city know what is being considered.

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Cuts threaten Edinburgh school staff, music tuition and libraries

Most of the ideas are hard to stomach. But for me, the most worrying of all is the proposal to cut education services.

School budgets could be reduced by up to three per cent, leading to a reduction in classroom assistants, while music tuition could be halved. On top of that, library services used by many youngsters could be scaled back.

I know the city council administration has not made any final decisions yet. But cuts to schools must be a red line.

Around two years ago, Nicola Sturgeon declared that raising attainment in Scotland’s classrooms was the Government’s “defining mission”. I wholeheartedly agree with that aim.

So why then is attainment in National exams now a third lower than it was in the Standard Grades they replaced?

It certainly isn’t the fault of teachers. They’re working harder than ever, coping under extra pressure, grappling with a huge number of vacancies and buying their own pencils for pupils just to top it off.

But there is a direct link between the resources available in schools and attainment levels.

So, given that spending in schools is now £400 million less per year than it was in 2010, we have an answer.

And there are more pupils in our schools now than there were in 2010, meaning the cuts are actually worse than they look, not better.

I have long argued that a fairer taxation system in Scotland should be introduced to ensure public services – primarily schools and hospitals – are better funded.

But we also need competent management of the budget at a national level, which is why there is a great deal of anger about the £340m underspend in the Scottish Government’s budget – including £115m in the ­education and skills department.

In 2019/20, there is unlikely to be any respite for councils. In Edinburgh, the council needs to find savings of £28m to cope with financial pressures next year, including an expected real-terms reduction in government funding. That’s why officials are putting together a list of proposals. They shouldn’t be criticised for doing their jobs, but I hope the elected politicians are quick to dismiss the specific ­proposals regarding schools.

There is no greater investment we can make than in our young people. If we take away the opportunities available to them, we are storing up huge problems for our city’s future.

We would be risking a long-term negative impact on our local economy, and embedding poverty and inequality.

SNP and Labour councillors have some unenviable decisions to make. I trust Adam McVey, the SNP council leader, will be making his anger known to his party colleagues in Holyrood who are ultimately responsible.

When local councils across Scotland have been hit with a £1.5 billion cut since the SNP came to power, this is the consequence.

Whatever is decided is likely to be unpopular. Residents in flats don’t want to be forced to pay for electricity in stairwells; extending parking controls will upset many; and reducing the money spent on fixing potholes will infuriate many more.

But there is little more important that properly funding our schools.

ScotRail needs to get improvements on track for hard-pressed commuters

I was shocked, but not that surprised, to read about the plight of rail passengers struggling to get seats on ScotRail services. Paying through the nose to be stuck under someone’s armpit in the gangway or standing in the aisle.

There’s so much that’s wrong with our rail network it’s hard to know where to begin. If it’s not the extortionate fares, it’s the delays and the stop skipping. ScotRail are always quick to point to the significant investment coming down the tracks but that does little to alleviate the problems and ill will that exists now.

Whilst new carriages and an improved line are obviously welcome, it’s the fare structure that also needs an overhaul. My colleague Jenny Marra has long campaigned on the Tay tax – a recognition that fares which involve crossing the Tay bridge are far more expensive than similar destinations that go west rather than north.

We know that the Glasgow-Edinburgh line is amongst the most expensive 45-minute journeys in Europe.

But yesterday we learnt that about the daft anomaly that an off-peak 1630 train leaving Waverley arrives at Haymarket as a peak service four minutes later. A time warp rather than a tunnel under the Castle. What a nonsense. Surely it would not be beyond the wits of the powers that be to recognise that at the very least, the fare structure is the same from one side of Princes Street to the other?

Food is a matter of life and death for some

The story of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, the 15-year-old French girl who died after eating a baguette with hidden sesame seeds, has haunted me all week.

Watching a young girl struggle for air would be horrendous at the best of times, but to do so thousands of feet up in the air with limited medical help just doesn’t bear thinking about.

Allergies are on the rise and they represent a spectrum of severity. It’s estimated that more than 2 million people in the UK have some form of allergy, from pollen to peanuts.

For some people it’s an uncomfortable few weeks of sneezing and running noses. For others it leads to life-threatening anaphylactic shock.

When I was 15 years old I started to have allergy attacks after eating foods I’d eaten the whole of my lifetime.

It was a very scary period as I would fall very ill at any moment and nobody could identify the trigger. I had to have three epi-pens, one for my bag, one in the house and one at school. My closest friends had to learn how to inject it into my thigh if I collapsed whilst in their company.

After 18 months, doctors determined that I was allergic to baking powder and a few E numbers that are used to preserve fizzy drinks. I avoided them and haven’t been ill in 20 years. So long in fact, my pals tease me and believe it’s all in my head.

This is why packaging and labelling really matters. Knowing and caring about what’s in our food isn’t just a fashionable craze, for some people it’s a matter of life and death.