A year on, don't expect miracles

6th February 2009 at 00:00
So what has the concordat done for us? Neil Munro has been finding out

Do not expect instant progress. That was the message from Colin MacLean, the Scottish Government's schools director, at a national conference held last week to mark the card of the concordat agreement between national and central government, one year on.

It was also the message from John Swinney, the Finance Secretary, and from Pat Watters, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities - the "parents" of the deal.

"Not everything will be achieved in a year," Mr Swinney said. "But I'm absolutely certain that we are now in a better relationship than the stand-off position we had in the past, where we were scrapping over resources and territory."

Mr Watters said the new deal was "exciting and refreshing". He added: "We are now involved in developing policy, not talking to government after it is decided. We are a partner with government, not an arm of government."

The Cosla president, who has expressed his frustration with mixed messages emerging from different local authorities about education spending resulting from the concordat (TESS January 23), accused the media of concentrating on just Pounds 400 million of local government's total resources of Pounds 1.5 billion - 2.75 per cent. That was a reference, in part, to the high-profile controversy around free school meals for P1-3 pupils.

The concordat has been dogged by arguments over whether there is enough money in local coffers to pay for agreed commitments, such as those on free school meals and reducing class sizes to 18 pupils in P1-3 "as quickly as possible".

Other education pledges in the concordat include improving the fabric of schools and nurseries, delivering A Curriculum for Excellence, giving every pre-school child "access" to a teacher, making "substantial progress" towards a 50 per cent increase in pre-school entitlement for all three and four-year-olds and providing more skills for work opportunities.

The Scottish Government, while insisting it is constrained by the "tightest ever" financial settlement from Westminster, repeatedly sticks to the line that all these commitments can be paid for as funding for council spending is at a record level, totalling Pounds 34.9 billion in the current 2008-11 spending period, which is a 12.9 per cent increase over the three years.

Mr MacLean said some benefits would take years to materialise - the effects of early intervention in improving health and reducing the prison population, for example.

But he said the concordat already had considerable achievements to its credit (see panel). It was a set of shared commitments by central and local government, in which both sides met regularly to monitor progress. "It's not just forgotten about," he added. "There is active management of the process."

Mr MacLean admitted that there were pressures on council budgets, although he said local authorities planned to spend 5.5 per cent more on education in 2008-09. But the actual spend would not be known until after the end of the financial year in April.

Council leaders expressed concern, however, over whether authorities would be penalised if they did not live up to the promises in their single outcome agreements, the local priorities covering all services to which councils are committed. There were 3,599 targets, outcomes and achievements in the SOAs for the 32 councils, which Trevor Muir, chief executive of Midlothian Council, described as "frightening".

Graham Houston, the SNP leader of Stirling Council, asked whether there would be a mechanism for resolving SOA disputes. "What about a council which fails on a commitment - does it get less money, or more to help them? And what about the councils which do well - will they get a reward and, if not, what's the incentive to achieve?"

Audit Scotland has already warned that "poor performance against single outcome agreement targets may affect future funding from central government".


Class size reductions being tackled in a variety of ways

Councils already providing for increased nursery hours

High levels of school building and refurbishment activity

Legislation passed on free school meals for all in P1-3

Very extensive consultation and engagement on A Curriculum for Excellence, with firm decisions to be announced soon

Early years framework published and substantial progress made in taking it forward

Advice being drawn up for schools to ensure pupils are given "skills for learning, skills for life and skills for work"

Increased number of teachers being trained to ensure those who are retiring over next few years can be replaced

Every community planning partnership is focusing on early yearsearly intervention to ensure progress on giving children "the best start in life" and improving the lives of those "at risk".

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