John McLellan: Conscience of Labour faces test in SNP budget vote

Will Labour councillor Lezley Cameron vote for the SNP-Labour coalition's budget despite her concerns about education funding?
Will Labour councillor Lezley Cameron vote for the SNP-Labour coalition's budget despite her concerns about education funding?
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For a government which has education at the top of its agenda, I’m not alone in wondering what the Scottish system would look like if it wasn’t a priority.

For a government which has education at the top of its agenda, I’m not alone in wondering what the Scottish system would look like if it wasn’t a priority.

According to the Scottish Parliament information service, the total budget for secondary schools has been cut by £350m since 2010, while further education college funding has been reduced by £75m in 11 years. Confidence has collapsed in Curriculum for Excellence and there is open rebellion against Primary One assessments.

To cap it all, education secretary John Swinney has been forced to shelve his flagship Education Bill to reform school governance and the least said about the disastrous ‘Named Persons’ policy the better.

The pressure under which Mr Swinney finds himself was obvious at his party conference when he lashed out at opponents “playing politics” with P1 assessments, as if 170 pages of teachers’ consultation comments were part of some dastardly opposition plot.

Labour MSPs have piled in behind the Conservatives and Lib Dems, but at the City Chambers, the coalition deal binds Edinburgh Labour councillors into the SNP programme. Worse, as part of the agreement Labour fronts local education policy and as the council administration faces cuts of£28m this year it’s no secret a group of Labour councillors are desperate to break up the coalition.

READ MORE: Brian Wilson: Does Scotland actually care about education?

Tensions bubbled to the surface in the aftermath of a report leaked to the Evening News showing the city’s education budget could bear the brunt, reducing the number of classroom assistants and halving music tuition. And that’s in addition to serious problems with school buildings, notably Liberton High.

Council leader Adam McVey and finance convener Alasdair Rankin quickly denied decisions had been made, but with teachers accounting for a quarter of the Council’s revenue budget alone, it’s inevitable teaching costs will take a share, possibly by as much as £7m.

The leaked paper acknowledged smaller schools “may not be able to maintain government-set teacher/pupil ratios” and the coalition will find it virtually impossible to meet an unfunded three per cent pay increase without reducing staff. The compulsory redundancy ban means reliance on a non-replacement policy and less control over the gaps.

What the Council does if the teaching unions are even half successful with their current ten per cent wage demand is anyone’s guess, and with the unions setting the bar at the 6.5 per cent recently awarded to police officers it’s a real possibility.

READ MORE: John Swinney: The evidence shows Scottish education is first class

A letter from Cllr Scott Arthur to the Evening News last week attacked the SNP for remaining silent on education cuts, not particularly remarkable given his track record of criticism, but as ex-SNP leader Steve Cardownie pointed out yesterday it has triggered a very public spat.

New SNP chief whip Cllr George Gordon angrily told Cllr Arthur to direct his comments at the education convener, Labour veteran Ian Perry and then Cllr Gordon Munro hit back: “The Scottish Government has cut revenue funding to councils by 9.6% since 2010/11 while Scottish government revenue funding from Westminster has been cut by 1.8%,” he wrote. “Cllr Gordon chooses to attack a fellow councillor rather than challenge the Scottish Government”.

But then Cllr Lezley Cameron weighed in: “The SNP Council Group in Edinburgh is sadly doing nothing to make representations to the Scottish Government to stop the severe funding cuts ... inflicted upon the City of Edinburgh since the SNP came to power. Not one of them spoke in the recent debate on the urgency of the need to fund and rebuild Liberton High School.”

It might have been wiser for Cllr Gordon to keep his counsel private, although given the synchronised eyeball-rolling along the SNP front bench when Labour’s three amigos speak and the seeming indifference of Labour leader Cammy Day, maybe the row will make no difference. But when it comes to the budget vote do Cllrs Arthur, Munro and Cameron vote with the SNP or their consciences?

A rubbish service?

Maybe it’s just teething troubles with the introduction of a new system, but complaints were mounting this week about the city’s new bins schedule, or what appeared to many people to be the lack of one. Across the city, there were reports of all types of bins being left unemptied for days after the advertised times, and that was before the start of the paid-for brown garden bin service. Everyone needs to report missed collections so a proper picture emerges of how the service has performed.