First minister Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard have clashed over education cuts in Falkirk that have prompted concerns about the state of education finances across Scotland and the impact on schools.
Mr Leonard raised concerns that letters from Falkirk headteachers had been sent to parents across Falkirk, “warning them of unprecedented cuts, including cuts to support staff”.
He said that one parent in Bo’ness, Catherine Sneddon, contacted him this week with concerns over her 10-year-old son Louis, who has a learning disability and epilepsy.
She told Mr Leonard: “Year in, year out, we brace ourselves for cuts to his support network…take that away from him and other children who need the ASN [additional support needs] support packages...and our children decline in physical and mental health alongside their medical issues.”
Mr Leonard said at First Minister’s Questions yesterday: “Is the first minister seriously saying to the Sneddon family that that is fair?”
Ms Sturgeon replied: As Richard Leonard will, or should, be aware, the leader of Falkirk Council has since issued a statement apologising for the misleading impression that was given by the letters and has given assurances about education services in Falkirk. I hope that Richard Leonard will accept and welcome that.”
The first minister also said that Falkirk Council’s problems were partly caused by a private finance initiative (PFI) scheme signed off by Labour in 1998; schools in the scheme had a capital value of £65 million, she said, but the total cost to the taxpayer would be £314 million.
She said: “That amounts to a cost to the taxpayer of £13.3 million a year. I think Labour should be apologising for that.”
Mr Leonard highlighted that the SNP was the largest party in the group running Falkirk Council.
He said: “The council cuts are being made by an SNP government in Edinburgh and we have reached the point at which headteachers in schools across Falkirk are writing to parents to tell them that this so-called fair settlement means swingeing cuts.
“The result is that vulnerable children [and] families such as the Sneddons face the stress of cuts to the services and the support that they need. Where is the fairness in that?”
He added: “When will the first minister stop imposing austerity on Scotland’s children and instead start investing in Scotland’s local services?
Ms Sturgeon said that in this financial year Falkirk Council had set an education budget of £158 million, an increase of £8 million on the previous year, and that an Accounts Commission report has found that education expenditure increased by 1.5 per cent in real terms across Scotland in 2017-18.
She added: “Richard Leonard would have more credibility on these issues if he did not continue to support a situation in which Tory governments at Westminster are allowed to impose cuts on this Parliament’s budget. When he changes his tune on that, people might be more prepared to listen to him on other matters.”
The Accounts Commission report published yesterday found that increased spending in education and social work was offset by reductions in other services.
Education expenditure increased in 2017-18 by 3.2 per cent (1.5 per cent in real terms), which the report said “reflects several national priorities including raising attainment”.
Social work expenditure increased by 2.4 per cent (0.7 per cent in real terms), which included funding the living wage and demand pressures; a range of “non-protected” services fell by 2.6 per cent (4.3 per cent in real terms), including environmental services, culture, planning and development services, and roads and transport.
Some 18 of Scotland’s 32 councils drew on their useable reserves in 2017-18.
The Scottish Greens called the Accounts Commission report “damning” and a “wake-up call” before the government sets the national budget next month, highlighting a comment by Graham Sharpe, chair of the Accounts Commission, that the pressure on local government "shows no sign of easing".
Its local government spokesman, Andy Wightman MSP, said the report shows that services are at "breaking point" and that "local government funding needs a complete overhaul if councils are going to meet rising demand for vital public services and pay the staff who deliver them fairly".