Conflict over spending

23rd January 2009 at 00:00
Local authorities' body demands action to end confusion on council budgets

The leadership of Scotland's authorities has admitted it is unable to function properly because of mixed messages on education spending.

In another sign of the strains which the concordat between local and central government is imposing on councils, an unprecedented letter from Pat Watters, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which has been obtained by The TESS, complains forcefully that conflicting information on education spending and concordat commitments from "a number of other bodies" is often at odds with what councils have been telling Cosla.

A meeting was held at the convention's Edinburgh headquarters on Monday to clear the air, particularly in areas such as reductions in P1-3 class sizes to 18 and free school meals for infants. Some councils - notably Glasgow, the largest - are adamant that they cannot afford to implement these policies.

"Cosla is in a difficult position trying to herd the pigeons," as one senior education figure put it.

In his private and confidential letter to council leaders, chief executives and directors of education, Councillor Watters wrote: "You will be acutely aware that stories about education budgets, teacher numbers and the concordat commitments on education and children are rarely out of the news.

"I do not think this will change in 2009, and it has become clear that Cosla cannot function as it should in support of member councils without being better informed about what is happening at the local level.

"As you will know, Cosla wrote to all councils in October 2008 as part of the agreed process of monitoring progress on the concordat commitments. We hoped that this would provide enough information to demonstrate nationally that progress was being made.

"Unfortunately, since we reported to government, a number of other bodies have released statements, sometimes backed with statistics and figures, which challenge the picture we had presented and gave a negative view of the education sector.

"This situation is unsustainable, and Cosla cannot do its job of representing the interests of councils without having a better feel for the education service in local areas.

"I should emphasise that while we have a job to maintain the relationship with Scottish Government, it is even more important that we are able to defend local government publicly in an informed way. As matters stand, we are unable to do this."

This week, Glasgow further distanced itself from the concordat undertaking on class sizes in primaries as it announced a major primary and nursery closure programme which is likely to mean larger classes (p5). The council is also opposed to the 18-pupil limit in principle.

A spokesman for Cosla refused to comment.

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