‘Unthinkable cuts’ to education proposed by Scottish councils

Whether to music tuition, school swimming pools or even teacher numbers, education directors say councils are considering ‘previously unthinkable’ cuts
25th January 2023, 3:06pm


‘Unthinkable cuts’ to education proposed by Scottish councils

Piano keys knife

Cuts to instrumental music tuition being proposed by a Scottish council would “choke off” the number of pupils coming through from primary and early secondary and, over time, kill off the service entirely, Tes Scotland has been told.

And the drastic proposal is, many teachers and school leaders fear, just one of many that will appear around the country over the coming weeks.

The proposal to cut £444,000 from Midlothian Council’s instrumental music service is one of a number of budget cuts being considered by the authority - which is also looking at the “catastrophic” possibility of cutting 174 teaching jobs and removing librarians from secondary school libraries to save £248,000 a year.

The cuts being considered by Midlothian follow the news that Glasgow City Council is looking at saving proposals that would - if taken forward in their entirety - result in the loss of over 800 teaching jobs and a saving of £51 million.

Glasgow City Council is looking to plug a funding gap of £68 million next year. One of the biggest savings, £18.5 million, would come from reducing the number of teachers by closing schools early on Fridays, affecting 324 roles.

In Falkirk, meanwhile, the council is considering closing four swimming pools in its secondary schools, saving £400,000 - a report that went to the December meeting of the council’s executive committee said that: “Due to the increasing energy costs, it is likely that the council will be unable to sustain school swimming pools, which are some of the highest energy users within the estate.”

First minister Nicola Sturgeon has been confronted with some of the cuts being considered by councils. Last week at First Minister’s Questions, the Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross grilled her about the “drastic cut in teacher numbers” being considered in Glasgow.

The first minister said this is “the time of year when we hear lots of reports about the savings options that different councils are considering” and added that: “Very often, those proposals do not proceed. The Parliament’s official report will be littered with examples of that.”

So Tes Scotland asked the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES) if there was no need to worry.

An ADES spokesperson said there can be “no doubt that the scale of financial savings is unprecedented and follows year-on-year cuts over the last ten-year period”.

“Councils are now considering what was previously unthinkable, such as shortening the school week or reducing teacher numbers.

The spokesperson added: “The current financial crisis has far-reaching implications for education and must be set against the backdrop of high inflation, the impact of ongoing salary negotiations, and all previous budget savings for local authorities.

“A flat cash settlement would previously have meant a cut of 2 per cent but the current rate of inflation means councils are facing savings of around 10 per cent while also dealing with increased demand as families struggle with the cost of living.”

School Leaders Scotland general secretary Jim Thewliss also said “some of the things we are starting to hear discussed now have never been discussed before”.

He made a plea to councils to devolve funding to schools so that headteachers could have more control over the savings that are made - as opposed to having to live with blanket cuts imposed from above.

Mr Thewliss said: “If there’s less money of course there are going to be cuts, but engage us meaningfully in a discussion and involve us so we can mitigate the worst effects of those cuts at school level. Talk to us.”

‘Dangerous and ill-thought-through proposal’

Alastair Orr is an instrumental music instructor with over 30 years of experience and has long campaigned for the protection of instrumental music and vocal tuition in schools.

He described Midlothian Council’s proposal to cut almost nine full-time-equivalent staff from its instrumental music service to save £444,000 a year as “a dangerous and ill-thought-through proposal”.

He added: “If implemented, this would see only those pupils sitting [Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA)] music examinations receiving music tuition. Running the music service this way - just for those sitting SQA exams - would choke off those receiving tuition in primary schools and in early secondary. Effectively, over time, allowing the service to die.”

Mr Orr also suggested that the council was “misusing” the government funding provided so that local authorities could stop charging fees for instrumental music tuition. 

In its proposal, Midlothian Council says: “As a result of a Scottish government and [local authorities’ body] Cosla agreement, no charging fees for children learning a musical instrument was introduced academic session 2021-22. The proposal is to operate an instrumental music service within the funding provided by the Scottish government; this will equate to £206,000.”

However, Mr Orr argued that this funding - which amounts to £8 million for the current academic year - was meant to cover fees charged to families, not the whole cost of delivering the music service.

Now, parents in the authority are beginning to mobilise to oppose the plans, with a public meeting planned for tomorrow.

Mr Orr welcomed the speed with which opposition has been mounted and gives short shrift to the idea that some of the most extreme proposals will just go away, as Ms Sturgeon has implied - rather his take is that “if councils are flying a kite, it needs to be metaphorically shot down”.

And given that some of the other proposals being considered have already been carried out by other councils - in June last year, North Lanarkshire Council cut the school librarian posts in all 23 of its secondary schools - it is clear there can be no room for complacency.

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