Cuts will bite hard in the new political era, unions warn

15th May 2015 at 01:00
No part of the UK is exempt from the threat, they say

The dramatic result of last week's general election will have a "huge" impact on school budgets in Scotland, according to leading figures in the sector.

While the Conservative Party won an unexpected overall majority for the first time since 1992, support for the SNP also surged to new heights, with the party taking 56 of Scotland's 59 seats.

The result prompted 10 education unions from across the UK to jointly write an open letter to the new government outlining deep concerns about the future of education funding. The unions warned that the prospect of cuts, as well as higher national insurance and pension contributions for schools, would further strain budgets and staffing numbers, leading to fewer teachers and bigger class sizes.

"No part of the UK is exempt from this threat," the letter states, with decisions at Westminster affecting the size of block grants to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

The consequences north of the border could be severe, according to Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association. "The new government has a mandate to carry on cutting public services," he said.

With SNP confidence high after the party's landslide success - it now has a majority of both MPs and MSPs in Scotland - Mr Searson also warned the Scottish government against believing "we have got total domination, we can do what we like".

"I'd hate to think they would behave like the Tories have done and push ahead without any regard for the profession," he said. "I hope they will be sensible and take forward the changes they want with the people that work in the service."

Budgets already squeezed

Mr Searson flagged up concerns over major issues such as new qualifications, teacher shortages and whether education would remain in the hands of the councils.

Disputes between the Scottish government and councils over teacher numbers might lead to education becoming more centralised, he suggested.

Meanwhile the Voice union, whose UK-wide general secretary Deborah Lawson signed the letter, stated that it was "very concerned" that while national policy in Scotland sought to bridge the attainment gap and improve literacy and numeracy, financial austerity was eating away at services that would help to meet these ambitions.

Voice Scotland senior professional officer Jennifer Barnes said: "While Scottish education is a matter devolved to the Scottish Parliament, decisions at Westminster impacting upon block grant settlements will inevitably affect funding available for Scottish education at a time when budgets are already under extreme pressure."

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS union, sounded a similar note of concern. "Clearly one of the big pressures on education in Scotland has been the impact of public sector budget cuts, so while in terms of educational policy the election does not have any impact - except for higher education - a continuation of austerity measures puts significant pressure on public sector funding, which will have a direct impact on education," he said.

Widening the north-south divide

The repercussions of the election result for the education sector will not be limited to school funding, according to the University of Glasgow's Professor Graham Donaldson, former senior chief inspector and author of the seminal 2011 report on teacher education Teaching Scotland's Future.

"We are likely to see a further widening of the policy gap between England and the rest of the UK," said Professor Donaldson, who earlier this year published a review of education in Wales.

"Policies based on competition, rigid accountability and a somewhat limited view of teacher professionalism [in England] are in stark contrast to those being followed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland," he added.

"Recent experience in Sweden would caution against any simplistic assumption that creating a market in education will automatically drive up standards."

But not everyone agrees that the election result will have a major impact on Scottish education.

"While the result was certainly historic from a Scottish perspective, the ultimate impact on education is likely to be minimal given the differences that already exist," said School Leaders Scotland general secretary Ken Cunningham.

"What might be interesting will be our new MPs' reaction to what is happening within the English system - if they weren't already clued in - hopefully confirming our own direction of travel."

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