Abandoned by the Tories;Platform

8th March 1996 at 00:00
Malcolm Green explains why Glasgow's education service faces such deep cuts

All Fools' Day was always going to be a difficult moment. Twenty-two years as a member of Strathclyde Regional Council, eight of them in the chair of the education committee, convinced me of the enormous benefits to be gained by the education service from the capacity Strathclyde had to employ a sufficiency of senior staff of high quality, to concentrate resources on areas of greatest need, to reap the advantages of economies of scale and plan strategically for the long term.

All this would be put at risk by the break-up of the region, a move supported by very few when it was first proposed by the Tory Government and by virtually nobody now. Dividing up Strathclyde's patrimony is a complex, fraught and demoralising business. Even where continuity of employment is assured, people inevitably feel unhappy at the disruption of established working relationships. Putting together staff who are doing the same job but who have been differently graded by their antecedent councils creates tension. Disaggregating Strathclyde's budget between 12 successor authorities of widely differing size and needs could not be arbitrary.

There are, it is true, some potential advantages to be gained from an amalgamation of district and regional functions. In Glasgow, for example, it should be possible for housing and social work to plan the provision of alarm systems and warden-assisted accommodation more easily. The city's millennium proposals could be better co-ordinated, and its twinning relationships could be more strongly underpinned with an educational content.

We wanted to use the first year of the new council's life to take stock of the achievements of Strathclyde, particularly in respect of its social strategy, and then to focus sharply and unwaveringly on the problem areas. No longer can we tolerate a situation in which Glasgow's education is at the bottom of so many performance indicators. But all this was planned on the assumption that we would have a "steady state" budget for 1996-97. We fully expected not to be able to fill administrative and advisory vacancies, and to return to full-time school work those teachers who were seconded to divisional or regional headquarters. But beyond that we hoped to be able to build on what we inherited from the region.

Alas, those fond hopes have been comprehensively shattered. Just before Christmas the full extent of the devastation last autumn's Budget would wreak on local government finances became clear. The Secretary of State imposed a cap on expenditure of pound;807 million, a cut of pound;67 million in the cost of running the services we inherit from Strathclyde Region and Glasgow District. In addition, the Government's external finance support (which, remember, accounts for 86 per cent of local government expenditure) is to increase by only 1 per cent, compared with an inflation rate of 3 per cent. In addition, the Government figures take no account of this year's pay awards and other unavoidable increased costs.

When all possible accounting manoeuvres have been deployed this means a cut of pound;44 million in departmental budgets (equivalent to 5 per cent), coupled with a resultant council tax increase of 36 per cent. A truly appalling picture to present to Glasgow's citizens, and one over which the new council has absolutely no control. It is normally possible for a sizeable departmental budget to be cut by up to 2 per cent by tightening the belt: cutting the supplies budget, hoping for a mild winter to save on energy costs, less maintenance work on school property, and so forth. Beyond 2 per cent school closures are unavoidable, and at 5 per cent compulsory redundancies emerge.

The education budget of pound;286 million has had to be cut by pound;15 million. Of this, pound;3 million has been found through increased charges and cuts in cleaning, catering and the education department's share of central budgetary costs. This leaves pound;12 million to be found by cuts in direct service provision. A fundamental principle with the Labour group is the avoidance of compulsory redundancies. A direct consequence of this is that the maximum cuts have to fall on buildings and the maximum opportunity for raising income has to be explored.

For the education service this means a package of measures which in scale and intensity exceed anything in my (by now fairly lengthy) experience. The key elements are these: charging non-Glasgow residents pound;25 a week for a nursery place; charging Glasgow residents with a pre-five place 50p a week, with a further pound;2.50 a week for pupils whose parents are not on income support; the closure of 12 community centres; the saving of pound;1 million on the operation of the community education service, by replacing catering staff with catering machines and a rigid policy of non-replacement of staff elsewhere; saving pound;240,000 on four residential education centres, either by closure or by radical reduction of costs; shaving almost pound;200,000 from the advisory service; a massive programme of school closures, to be effective in June, saving pound;3.2 million; charging for music instruction outwith the curriculum.

The group was able to set its face against reductions in the welfare aspects of the education budget: free travel for school pupils, footwear and clothing grants and higher school bursaries. The budget of more than pound;6 million for additional teachers in schools in deprived areas (over half the city) was also protected.

How charges for pre-five places will go down, what effect charging for music instruction will have, whether staff redeployment implications of community education cuts will be managed, only time will tell. By far the biggest controversy is bound to take place around the school closure programme. Sixteen primary schools and at least five secondary schools must shut by the end of June. This represents a programme far in excess of anything Strathclyde Region (or any other authority in the country) ever attempted. The time-scale is so tight that the directorate will be fully stretched simply attending the consultation meetings during April and preparing the necessary documents.

Indeed, additional staff will have to be employed, including recently retired members of Strathclyde's directorate, simply to keep up with the paperwork. The implementation of the closures, in staffing, curriculum and building terms, will present immense difficulties. And misuse of the opt-out balloting mechanism in order to delay a closure is open to any school.

A closures programme handled as part of an area review over one or two sessions, with savings reinvested in improved educational provision, is a principle everyone accepts as sound (provided that it affects someone else's school). But a closure programme handled in this way cannot be justified on education grounds, and neither I nor the director intend to try.

The council cannot budget to exceed the capping limit. If it did, the Secretary of State would simply impose it, forcing the council to rebill and making compulsory redundancies inevitable. No one with any understanding of the relevant legislation has suggested we should, and I for one have no desire to go down in history as the first education convener to preside over the compulsory redundancy of teachers.

But the public do have a weapon available to them which the council does not possess: the ballot box. The Tories may have given up Glasgow politically but elsewhere, and not least in Stirling, widespread and sustained public anger will surely make its mark. Unless the Government is forced to mitigate its stance, prospects for all involved in Glasgow's education will be grim.

Dr Malcolm Green is education convener of Glasgow City Council.

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