Cuts threaten Edinburgh school staff, music tuition and libraries

SWEEPING cuts in school spending, music tuition and library opening hours are among measures being considered by city council chiefs to balance the budget for next year.

Wednesday, 26th September 2018, 7:57 am
Updated Wednesday, 26th September 2018, 11:46 am
Music tuition could be halved under council budgets cuts being discussed. Picture: Ian Georgeson

School budgets handed to headteachers could be reduced by up to three per cent, which the council admits could mean cuts in classroom assistants – despite a pledge to increase their numbers – and leave some schools unable to meet targets for teacher-pupil ratios.

Music tuition in the Capital could be halved, with 2500 pupils who are currently learning to play instruments having their lessons stopped or a charge of £321 per year introduced.

And some libraries face “significantly” reduced opening times.

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The council needs to find savings of £28 million from the 2019/20 budget to cope with financial pressures, including an unfunded pay rise for council staff, growing demand for services and an expected real-terms reduction in funding from central government.

Last week the Evening News revealed other measures being discussed by the SNP-Labour administration included less money for waste collection and road repairs, stopping emergency repairs to tenements, ending the free supply of electricity in common stairs, extending parking zones and trimming the Lord Provost’s budget.

Finance convener Alasdair Rankin emphasised the potential cuts had been drawn up by council officers and so far had not been endorsed by the administration.

He said: “We face curtailed budgets and rising demand. There will inevitably be hard decisions we have to make.”

The cut of 1-3 per cent in devolved school management budgets – affecting primary, secondary and special schools - could save £6m over four years. The council briefing document on the proposal says: “Within clear guidelines, headteachers would determine how best to implement the reduction within their own establishment.

“Headteachers can choose to make savings through general efficiencies, carefully targeted staffing reductions, either teaching or classroom assistants, or their own business support costs.”

But it also admits: “At the three per cent savings target smaller schools may not be able to maintain government-set teacher pupil ratios.”

Challenged on the apparent contradiction of the coalition agreement promise to increase classroom assistants, Cllr Rankin said the talk of staffing cuts was “speculative”.

Last year the council faced a storm of protest over plans to close the city’s renowned music school – and this year it is making clear the music school will not be affected by the proposal for halving the budget for music tuition. The proposed cut from £2.4m to £1.2m comes with two options – reducing staffing by 50 per cent from 55.14 full-time-equivalent teachers to 27.57, with a likely fall in pupils learning instruments from 5084 to 2542; or introducing charging, though pupils studying music for SQA exams and those receiving free school meals would be exempt, which would leave 3762 having to pay a charge of around £321 per year.

Library opening hours have been under threat before but this time the proposals are linked to a longer-term move towards relocating libraries inside schools or community centres. Cllr Rankin said: “We’re not precious about buildings, we want to preserve services.”

Tory finance spokesman Graham Hutchison accused the administration of a “startling lack of imagination”.

He said: “We were promised there would be more strategic thinking but it seems they are going over the same ground again, particularly on library hours and the instrumental music service.”

He said the Conservatives had argued for libraries to be part of community hubs, but it should not be to cover up cuts.

Green finance spokesman Gavin Corbett said the proposals looked like “the same old death by a thousand cuts”.

He said: “What is needed is real recognition from Scottish Government that councils should be able to fund services properly. At the same time, the council needs to be more imaginative about ways of delivery. What happened to the open libraries pilot, for example, as a way of expanding, not cutting hours? And what about looking at delivery models for the music service rather than a crude 50 per cent cut?

And he warned cuts to school budgets would almost inevitable fall on classroom support - materials, equipment or special activities.

Lib Dem finance spokesman Neil Ross said education was the top priority for local authorities and described music tuition as a “very valuable service”. “It would be a great loss to educational provision in Edinburgh,” he said.