Warning of school funding cuts this year

Politicians in Scotland claim that schools are facing a '£100 million cut to core budgets' – so where will the axe fall?
13th January 2022, 11:40am
Emma Seith


Warning of school funding cuts this year

How is school funding changing in the coming financial year?

Scotland's education secretary has been told that she should be "spitting mad" about the cuts made to council budgets in 2022-23 - and that this will result in a "£100 million cut to core school budgets".

The claim was made by the Liberal Democrat MSP Willie Rennie as the Scottish Parliament's Education, Children and Young People Committee used its first meeting of 2022 to grill Shirley-Anne Somerville over the government's spending plans for the coming financial year.

Mr Rennie, a former leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said at yesterday's meeting that the local government budget settlement had resulted in a real-terms cut of £268 million for councils. The figures Mr Rennie was quoting came from a report compiled for the committee by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe).

Mr Rennie reasoned that because "education is about half of what councils do", a "cautious estimate" was that schools would experience a £100 million cut.

He added of Ms Somerville: "Why is she not spitting mad about this? She shouldn't be defending this cut to the core school budget - she should be arguing for an increase."

School funding pressures in Scotland

The education secretary responded that she did not "recognise or accept the figures" that Mr Rennie was using and highlighted an Institute for Fiscal Studies report from last year that put school spending in Scotland higher than other parts of the UK.

But Stephen McCabe, children and young spokesperson for local authorities' body Cosla, told Tes Scotland yesterday that, as the biggest service that councils provide, education would "inevitably...have to take a share of savings".

However, with increasing teacher numbers a key government priority, where will the cuts come from?

Other areas such as instrumental music tuition - where in the past charges have been introduced or increased to help balance budgets - also seem an unlikely target, given that in the wake of last May's Scottish Parliament elections the government provided funding so that fees could be scrapped.

A budget consultation being run just now by Scottish Borders Council says that "like every council, we face financial pressures, with a finite amount of resources". It goes on to say that it spends around a third of council resources on education and asks respondents to rank "in order of your priority" different education and skills areas, including closing the attainment gap and supporting young people's mental health.

In Mr McCabe's own local authority, Inverclyde, an online consultation offers "reducing support to schools (family support)" as one of nine options that can be chosen to help "close the funding gap the council currently faces".

But it is not all doom and gloom for schools in terms of funding.

In the coming financial year, the government plans to increase its spending on education in both real and cash terms.

The same SPICe briefing cited by Mr Rennie shows what some of the key areas of spending will be. Workforce and infrastructure is a big factor, because it includes the £145.5 million for councils "to ensure the sustained employment of additional teachers and classroom assistants recruited during the pandemic".

There is also over £70 million to fund free school meals for P4 and P5 pupils - although the commitment to deliver free school meals for all primary school pupils by the start of the new school year in August has been delayed. Ms Somerville says her officials will be "working with Cosla to agree a new delivery timetable for the roll-out of lunches to children in Primary 6 and 7".

Cosla has said that £200 million will be required to deliver the commitment.

But the SPICe briefing also points out an important area where funding has been cut - the £20 million Covid-driven boost to the Pupil Equity Fund (PEF), which goes directly to schools based on the number of pupils taking free school meals, will not be repeated in 2022-23 and the PEF will therefore drop to £120 million.

Beyond this, the pot of cash to support the Attainment Challenge remains similar to the previous year but now it will be spread across all 32 councils. This means some authorities will now receive a welcome funding boost - but many of those originally targeted by the PEF drive to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils will see their funding cut.

All in all, therefore, it seems likely that schools - particularly when it comes to staffing - will have a degree of protection when councils are forced to wield the knife. However, any hope that the pandemic would lead burgeoning budgets and a huge influx of cash into schools to support recovery should be laid to rest.

Today, the scale of the challenge facing some local authorities was laid bare, as the Accounts Commission urged Falkirk Council to make difficult decisions to bridge a £70 million funding gap.

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