Aberdeen gets its axe out

29th October 2010 at 01:00
Authority leads the way in proposing swingeing cuts to services once considered sacrosanct

Aberdeen City Council is thinking the unthinkable with a series of savage cuts and radical measures that could send schools into "meltdown", it is claimed.

Details emerged in the week that a leaked document from local authority body Cosla revealed the Scottish Government would be leaving councils with a pound;630 million shortfall in 2011-12. It is feared that Aberdeen will be the first of many authorities to axe services previously deemed sacrosanct.

The Aberdeen proposals include: starting nursery at the age of four or stopping pre-school education altogether; increasing P1-3 class sizes to 33; withdrawing half or all pupil support assistants; stopping Curriculum for Excellence training for modern languages; and online secondary education replacing much face-to-face teaching.

In terms of teachers' conditions, non-class contact time could be scrapped; supply contracts could cover only times when pupils are present; and other professionals could be used instead of teachers for some activities. School administrator posts could also be reduced.

Further options are withdrawing music tuition and closing the much-admired Aberdeen City Music School; and not filling educational psychologists' posts.

All 16 community libraries could be closed and libraries moved to supermarkets or private-sector cafes.

The council hopes to find pound;11 million of savings by "redesign of the profile of professional staffing".

Although all local authorities are searching for savings, the scale and nature of the cuts being considered in Aberdeen are unprecedented in recent times.

The authority is the first to come up with a five-year business plan, intended to find pound;127 million of savings in that period.

Over a third of the savings - 37 per cent or pound;47 million - is to come from education. But no part of the council is immune, with the closure of all museums, art galleries and public parks being mooted.

The council concedes that pound;30.8 million of the cuts in education represent "high-risk options" which would result in "changes to traditional staffing models and a radical change in the delivery of education services".

These could only proceed by changing national agreements - including the 2001 teachers' agreement - after negotiations with unions and Government and "a shift in public expectations".

Chief executive Sue Bruce, who will shortly take up the same post at Edinburgh City Council and oversee pound;90 million of savings there over three years, said Aberdeen was being "open and honest" about the effects of plummeting public-sector budgets.

"We will be a leaner organisation in the future, delivering less ourselves," she added. Instead, the authority would be aiming to "help people and communities to help themselves".

Grant Bruce, the Educational Institute of Scotland's Aberdeen secretary, said: "If some of these proposals are carried through, Aberdeen schools will be in meltdown.

"We have seen 180 teaching posts go in the past three years. There is no flesh left on the bones - we have been cut down as much as we possibly can be."

Local authorities should not be trying to change teachers' nationally- agreed terms and conditions, he said.

"The ridiculous suggestion of doing away with non-class contact time would put into question the whole implementation of Curriculum for Excellence in Aberdeen," he added.

Surveys already showed that Scottish teachers were working about 10 hours more than contracts stipulated, Mr Bruce said. He knew of primary depute heads who in June were taking classes one-and-a-half days a week, but now were doing four days.

Mr Bruce would prefer savings to be found in the school estate, although the five-year plan already envisages closing five primaries and two secondaries. Former Aberdeenshire Council chief executive Alan Campbell argued that millions of pounds a year could be saved if the authority merged with Aberdeen.

Andrew May, convener of the city council's education, culture and sport committee, insisted that all the Aberdeen proposals would eventually be replicated in councils across Scotland. Anything that was not a statutory requirement had to be considered a possible saving.

A former primary headteacher, he said Aberdeen was "ahead of the game" in coming up with an "honest and upfront" long-term plan before any other council.

East Ayrshire Council has published a report detailing education savings being made in 2010-11. These include reducing promoted posts; cutting school budgets; removing the early-intervention budget; relaxing the requirement for class sizes of 20 in S1-2 maths; charging for music tuition; and removing the budget for foreign language assistants.

But Graham Short, executive director of educational and social services, said further pain was unavoidable, taking the council into "areas that normally wouldn't have been contemplated".

It was "inevitable" and "absolutely vital" that the teachers' agreement be reviewed, he said.

He would stop short at measures requiring changes to legislation, citing issues such as class sizes and the early years. Any cutbacks, Mr Short stressed, should be "equitable" and not lower standards in the crucial areas of early intervention, inclusion and raising attainment.

The leaked document from Cosla revealed its anger that the Government had imposed a one-year budget with a pound;630 million shortfall - when increased funding of pound;270 million would have been required to match this year's budget - rather than setting out the usual three-year cycle.

It raised fears about the impact on planning and said a one-year deal raised questions about the Government's commitment to teachers.



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