Educational meltdown

10th October 2008 at 01:00
Aberdeen City Council faces a grim future as staff and pupils bear the brunt

A crisis-hit education authority has publicly conceded that its schools are no longer able to meet pupils' needs, in an unprecedented admission which paints a picture of a city in educational meltdown.

A stark report shows Aberdeen City Council is bracing itself for a grim future of class sizes pushed to the limit, crumbling buildings and increased absenteeism among stressed-out staff and pupils. It reveals that only a handful of schools have managed to make the savings expected of them.

Parent representatives believe the full impact of the cuts has yet to emerge: a further update in January could make more worrying reading.

These developments follow hard on the heels of a report that 1,300 employees wanted to quit their posts across the council amid news of a possible further 5 per cent budget reduction, in addition to cuts of pound;50 million announced earlier this year.

This week's report reveals that cuts in teacher numbers - some 66 posts in primary and secondary schools so far - are forcing senior management to spend more time teaching. They have less time for duties such as quality assurance and monitoring staff.

The health of staff is also at risk, as the report warns: "There may be higher levels of stress which could result in increased absenteeism of staff and pupils."

Pupils preparing for their most crucial exams are not immune: there are reduced timetable options for Higher and Advanced Higher; shortened school days for fifth and sixth years; a reduction in pupils' time with teachers; more individual study expected; and more joint Intermediate 2 and Higher classes.

At a policy and strategy (education) committee meeting during which the report was discussed this week, Tony Rafferty, of the Aberdeen Parent Council Liaison Group, demanded a "brutally frank" prediction of whether attainment would drop; no such response was forthcoming.

Grant Bruce, local EIS secretary, told the meeting he had "growing concerns" about the city's ability to implement A Curriculum for Excellence; Labour councillor Barney Crockett told the same meeting that the SNP and Lib Dem-run council's ability to fund the new curriculum was "near zero".

Headteachers and deputes are finding themselves with less time for "school improvement and curricular development". Less flexible timetables and a reduction in work with local communities is also undermining the new curriculum.

Meeting Scottish Government expectations to reduce class sizes, meanwhile, looks like a forlorn hope, with schools instructed to increase them to "optimum levels where possible".

Cutbacks will reduce teachers' opportunities to improve their skills by "limiting continuing professional development opportunities". Significantly reduced funding means CPD has to be provided in-school at the end of the day, to reduce the need for teaching cover.

Schools are relying on temporary staff rather than filling vacancies, while short-term absences are covered internally. Support for learning services are being pared back and staff have less time to manage behaviour support, while support assistants are working fewer hours.

The council argues that the impact of nearly pound;16 million of education cuts has been cushioned by requiring schools to contribute only pound;4 million of savings. The council-wide cuts, however, have included reduced curricular support, CPD, and music tuition, while previously ring-fenced budgets have become vulnerable since the concordat with the Scottish Government which gave local authorities more power over funding decisions.

Despite making cutbacks to every corner of their budgets - including heating, lighting and photocopying - the report reveals that only 11 out of 66 primary, secondary and special schools have managed to achieve required savings.

Cuts in other council departments are having potentially dangerous knock- on effects on school buildings, with the council admitting that failure to carry out repairs may leave schools in breach of health and safety regulations. And cover for janitors, also not paid for out of the education budget, is increasingly difficult to find.

Consultation has exposed deep concern about the cuts, with Aberdeen secondary heads highlighting the "disappointment and, in many cases, anger" of parents and pupils. Parent councils were concerned about health and safety, as well as motivation and morale.

The city council recently sought to stabilise education services which, unlike other local authorities, have no dedicated director, by assigning the task to John Tomlinson, who will retain his communal responsibilities as director of neighbourhood services in the north of the city.

Kate Dean, council leader, told this week's meeting it was not clear whether any permanent restructuring would take place under new chief executive Sue Bruce when she starts later this year.

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