Council budget cuts fears for schools

Alasdair Allan MSP cuts the first turf at the new Boroughmuir High site with pupils and headteacher David Dempster. Picture: Toby Williams

Alasdair Allan MSP cuts the first turf at the new Boroughmuir High site with pupils and headteacher David Dempster. Picture: Toby Williams

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A RAFT of “invisible” cuts aimed at schools, nurseries and learning centres will damage the ability of children to achieve their potential, critics have warned.

The city must save £67 million by 2017-18 to balance its books, as council bosses bid to protect frontline teaching, deliver 600 hours of free childcare to vulnerable two-year-olds and all three and four-year-olds, and ensure crumbling campuses are safe and well maintained.

Primary and secondary schools have been largely shielded from many of the more swingeing budget proposals set to hit teams serving Edinburgh’s youngsters and their families.

But measures targeting early years support workers, education welfare officers and nursery services have been criticised as an attack on those most in need of help.

While acknowledging there is no major or immediate threat to core classroom resources, parents and union leaders have warned that laws extending eligibility for free childcare risk being viewed as a “cure-all” for the effect of “hidden” cuts.

And they repeated a call for funds to be ploughed into plugging a £17.2m gap in the Capital’s school repair budget following the death of Keane Wallis-Bennett, 12, who was killed earlier this year when a modesty wall in Liberton High’s PE block collapsed on top of her.

Education chiefs are currently pressing ahead with plans to upgrade or replace a number of buildings, and construction work has now started on new campuses for Portobello and Boroughmuir high schools.

Lindsay Law, parent representative on the city’s education committee, said: “600 hours of childcare should not be viewed as a panacea for the real difficulties that some children and families face.”

Community learning and development, education welfare and nursing specialists, whose work is often focused on young people with the greatest support needs, are among staff set to be axed as city leaders try to streamline departments. And it is hoped savings of nearly £1m can be secured through focusing budgets on delivering the 600 hours pledge, although this may mean reducing some childcare services.

Primary and high schools have not completely escaped the axe, with proposals to make secondaries cover the cost of teacher sickness absence for periods up to 30 days sparking concern.

Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary at the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said the plan could harm learning at key points in the year.

“My concern would be around an ‘anything goes’ approach – scraping around and getting general, non-specific cover for someone who’s absent and [department] leaders providing appropriate cover material for classes,” he said. “And in that situation the young people generally suffer.”

Alison Thornton, Edinburgh local association secretary for the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) teaching union, added: “The EIS, whilst recognising that the package of budget reduction proposals currently under consultation does not contain any major proposals to cut frontline teaching posts, is concerned that there are a large number of proposals which, if adopted, will severely affect support staff and the services they deliver in our schools and other educational establishments.”

Rob Coward, joint parent council chair at Stockbridge Primary, whose children are in P3 and P5, warned the proposed budget would do nothing to alleviate families’ fears over future spending cuts, particularly in areas such as additional support for learning.

“Parents across the city will be worried about the effects,” he said.

Making the money go further

• Re-focus budgets to ensure delivery of 600 hours of pre-school childcare, meaning some additional services may be reduced;

• Reduce the number of education welfare officers from 18 to 16;

• Increase the “trigger point” for reimbursing schools’ long-term absence cover from 20 to 30 days. Schools are currently expected to manage absence for the first 20 days only;

• Review group worker posts in early years centres and remove the community learning and development post;

• Third party grants cut by nearly £1.7 million.

‘We are committed to spending on our schools’

By Paul Godzik

Edinburgh schools are performing well. We continue to perform better than comparable cities in Scotland and neighbouring authorities. Early indications from this summer’s exam results are set to show this trend will continue.

Add into the equation new statistics showing 91 per cent of young people in Edinburgh achieved a positive destination on leaving school and you really can see that the Capital Coalition’s commitment to providing opportunities for our young people to achieve their potential is working.

However, we all know that the council faces significant financial challenges. Our overall funding is being reduced and given the council tax freeze there is little opportunity to raise additional revenue. These budget pressures mean we have to make careful choices when prioritising where we spend our money.

It means looking at every area of spending and checking if we can be leaner and deliver more efficiently. It is undoubtedly a difficult task, but I want to reassure everyone we are committed to spending on our schools and delivering a first-class education.

We already have a £30m, five-year maintenance and repair plan for our schools and other buildings in our children and families estate. However we realise this is an area where more money needs be spent to ensure they are all of a good or excellent condition. By realigning our spending I hope we can ensure there is more capital funding for areas like maintaining school buildings and other major projects.

We are already delivering much-needed new schools at James Gillespie’s, Boroughmuir and Portobello, we have funding committed for St Crispin’s Special School and St John’s RC Primary, and no other council in Scotland has taken such an innovative and collaborative approach to tackling the issue of rising school rolls like we have.

We know that sending your child to school for the first time can be a stressful experience for any family, so despite the unprecedented rise in rolls we’ve given parents a guarantee that places will be available at their local catchment primary.

A £15m investment in our rising rolls project has already seen an extra 46 modern, high-quality class spaces delivered in our primary school estate in the first two years and more are on the way.

We will continue to invest in services for the very youngest to provide them with the best start in life – more than £4m has been invested in our Early Years Change Fund.

We’ve set out plans for eight new nurseries and we are also providing free nursery places of up to 600 hours for pre-school age children.

Looking after and protecting the most vulnerable children, services for children with disabilities, providing additional support for learning, more foster carers and effective youth offending services are all key areas. Our transformation programme, seeking to change the nature of these services, boosting support and reducing long-term demand is ongoing.

The budget proposals are out for consultation so we want to hear from as many residents as possible on where people want us to invest and where they would recommend savings. For example, next week I’m holding a budget engagement meeting with parent council chairs.

Last year we did listen and made changes to our proposals for school librarians, learning assistants and payments to kinship carers. We have also taken on board views about protecting our schools’ budget and

this is reflected in this year’s

proposals.

The referendum process saw many young people engage in politics for the first time and we want to build on this successful engagement with them. We now have an online budget planner where people can try for themselves to set a balanced £950m budget.

We need to ensure the high standard of service we provide for our children is not affected so I would urge everyone to have their say and go to www.edinburgh.gov.uk/budget to give us their feedback.

Finally, I’ll be answering your questions on Twitter from 4-5pm today. Tweet your queries to @Edinburgh_CC by 3.45pm, using the hashtag #edinbudget.

• Councillor Paul Godzik is children and families convener