If the cuts keep coming we'll `run out of salami'

28th March 2014 at 00:00
As local authorities look to slice even further into public spending, experts argue that radical reform is the only way to protect provision. Emma Seith discovers that no idea is off the table

Back in 2009, Glasgow City Council launched an extensive school closure and merger programme. It was a tough time for all concerned. Parents chained themselves to the railings of one school, held a rooftop protest at another and took over two further schools to stage a sit-in that lasted for more than a week. Education officials, meanwhile, faced night after night of hostile public meetings with rooms full of angry Glaswegians.

Five years on, other councils across Scotland could soon be introducing similar closure policies, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES) has predicted. According to statistics published by the Scottish government last year, a fifth of the country's primaries are half-full or emptier, and cuts of between 15 and 20 per cent are expected across education services over the next four years. The numbers have led senior figures from ADES, John Stodter and Bruce Robertson, to estimate that around 200 school closures could be in the pipeline, but these alone will not be enough to deliver the savings required.

Both men believe that a national debate about the future of education in Scotland is needed. Nothing should be off the table, they say - whether it is removing schools from local authority control, changing the starting age, adjusting the length of the school day, increasing the use of technology or beginning university in S6.

"The salami-slicing approach taken so far cannot continue," Robertson says, "because eventually you run out of salami. The sums that have to be saved are so big [that] more radical approaches are needed. A strategic approach over a longer period is infinitely preferable to the annual quick fix we have tended to see so far."

Patchy provision

It is a council's role to add value to the work of schools, but some authorities are now so short of staff that Robertson questions whether this is possible. "I have concerns that the value of education and the needs of learners, as well as teachers, are being marginalised," he says.

There are fears that the variation and inconsistencies that now exist between councils mean that Scottish students are facing a postcode lottery. It is no longer possible, Robertson adds, to guarantee that every child has an equal chance of getting the best possible education, regardless of where they live.

Or, as ADES put it in a submission to the local authorities body Cosla: "While current governance arrangements can facilitate strong local democracy, having 32 local education authorities raises serious questions and challenges for the coherence, consistency and equity of the system as a whole."

One "killer fact" that illustrates why the body is pushing for reorganisation, Stodter says, is the comparison of Ayrshire and Fife. Both have populations of approximately 360,000, but it costs pound;25 million more for Ayrshire's three authorities - North, South and East - to deliver education each year.

"As a matter of urgency, councils within the current governance arrangements need to look at sharing back-office costs," Robertson continues. "For a start, there should be a national payroll service for teachers."

Acknowledging the elephant

Scotland's largest teaching union, the EIS, agrees that reorganisation is "the elephant in the room". The body is also calling for "a serious discussion" about how education is delivered, its general secretary, Larry Flanagan, says. In its own submission to Cosla, the EIS put forward two possibilities. The first is the removal of local government control of education, with schools funded directly by central government and local accountability delivered through new "education boards". The second involves the devolution of all education decision-making to local authorities and the development of a quasi-federal system of school management in Scotland.

"At the moment, a tension exists between Scottish government and local government in terms of education policy and delivery - and it's not a helpful tension," Mr Flanagan explains. "You end up with contradictions like the Scottish government supporting access to a teacher pre-5 and local authorities failing to deliver."

Inevitably, however, teachers' leaders and directors do not see eye to eye on everything, particularly when it comes to another radical idea ADES would like to see investigated - reducing teaching hours for students. Teachers are committed to 22.5 classroom hours per week, while primary and secondary students generally spend at least 25 hours per week in lessons. If the two were brought into line, teacher numbers could be reduced and substantial savings made, or so the argument goes.

The idea is being floated in Fife where it is estimated that savings of more than pound;1 million could be found in secondary and around pound;2.5 million in primary in the first year alone. However, the specialist art, drama, music and physical education teachers who cover about a third of primary teachers' non-contact time would be out of work, the authority has acknowledged.

"There would be fierce opposition from teachers and parents if the response to the economic crisis was to cut back on time that children have in school," Flanagan says. "You can't possibly be serious about creating a leading education system and then start reducing the time young people have in the classroom for teaching and learning."

Fierce opposition was certainly the response in 2011, when Renfrewshire Council proposed that primary students should be taught by non-teaching staff for two and a half hours per week. An outcry ensued and the authority was forced to drop the idea.

`Sweat your assets'

Figures from the rest of Europe suggest that less time in school does not necessarily mean poorer outcomes for children. Finland scores higher than Scotland for reading in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) league tables, but infants there spend just 569 hours per year in school, compared with Scotland's 975 hours. In Germany, meanwhile, children in the early years of primary spend just 564 hours in school but by age 15 they perform better in reading, according to the Pisa rankings.

And in many of these countries, children start formal education later - another idea that should be explored in Scotland, ADES believes. Compulsory schooling begins in Germany at age 6 and in Finland at age 7.

In recent weeks, however, there have been calls for children in Scotland to start school even earlier, at age 4, in a bid to close the attainment gap between children from affluent families and those from poorer backgrounds.

The longitudinal survey Growing Up in Scotland found that in tests of vocabulary and problem-solving, five-year-olds whose parents have university degrees are already more than a year ahead of those whose parents have no qualifications. So rather than closing primary schools with spare capacity, authorities should use them to enable all four-year-olds to enter preschool education, according to researchers from progressive thinktank the Scotland Institute.

"By creating universal provision at [age] 4, we can use existing resources and remove one source of inequity in terms of child development," says Dr Azeem Ibrahim, the organisation's chairman and author of the Early Start 4 Scotland report.

Back in Glasgow, the council is looking at how services could be delivered in 2015-16.

"We have been asked to think differently," says Maureen McKenna, the city's education director. "We have taken nearly pound;60 million out of our budget in the last six years but have never taken a salami-slicing approach. I'm fundamentally opposed to that because it means you are cutting services - you are reducing what you offer."

The answer is to change what you do and "sweat your assets", McKenna adds. She cites the example of two secondaries in Castlemilk, in the south of the city, that were under capacity. The space in one, Castlemilk High School, has been converted into offices for a non-profit computing service. An empty wing of the other school, St Margaret Mary's Secondary, is set to become home to St Oswald's - a school for students with additional support needs - in August, a move that will bring significant benefits for the council.

"That means we save the capital money on refurbishing St Oswald's, reduce the rates and declare that building surplus to requirements," McKenna explains.

She says authorities must avoid getting hung up on the immediate future, as they risk losing sight of the big picture. "The danger is you get so focused on 2015-16 or next year's budget that you don't look to the horizon," she adds.

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