Increases - if at all - are merely 'illusory'

20th February 2009 at 00:00
Schools' council education spending budgets protected from inflation

The annual TESS survey of council education spending plans reveals that, with 26 of the 32 authorities having fixed their budgets for 2009- 10, most are struggling to match inflation but they claim schools have been protected.

The rising costs of energy, residential placements and additional support for learning, along with teachers' superannuation, are cited by many councils as the main financial pressures facing them.

Some authorities appear to have relatively large increases in their budgets - Falkirk, with a real terms increase of 6.3 per cent, leads the table - but many education directors admit privately that these increases are "illusory".

Glasgow City Council, the largest education authority, points out that it has had a 58 per cent increase in gas and 45 per cent increase in electricity tariffs since last October. Its taxi costs for transporting children with additional support for learning needs has risen by 6.5 per cent.

Residential care costs are cited by many councils as a major pressure. Some pupils placed in residential schools can cost nearly pound;5,000 each per week, while ASL support from the independent and voluntary sector can cost hundreds per pupil.

The credit crunch and recession have made a dent in the income from land sales on which many councils had based their projections. Some councils are facing substantial costs related to single status and equal pay regulations, while some have still to grasp this particular nettle. East Ayrshire reports that its PPP unitary charge will mean an increased cost of pound;1.7 million.

A number cite teachers' and other staff pension revaluations as a significant pressure, while above-inflationary increases in fees to the Scottish Qualifications Authority in recent years are also described as additional cost pressures by some local authorities. Dumfries and Galloway, one of the smaller ones, reports additional SQA fees as having cost it pound;250,000.

Changes to the benefit rules which increase entitlement to free school meals are also listed as a pressure by some councils: in the case of Highland Council, it accounts for an additional pound;500,000 while Edinburgh faces an additional pound;1.4 million bill.

A number of authorities say they have not made direct cuts to devolved school budgets, or "frontline" education as some prefer to call it. However, as many are not increasing DSM budgets, this still amounts to a real terms cut, even allowing for relatively low inflation at around 3 per cent.

Others, however, have cut school budgets by up to 2 per cent - in the case of East Renfrewshire, there is a cut of 0.8 per cent in schools' devolved budgets; in North Ayrshire and Falkirk of 2 per cent; and in Renfrewshire of 0.3 per cent. Highland is cutting pound;1 million from its pound;140 million devolved budget for schools.

Many authorities have chosen instead to cut centrally-employed and non- teaching staff, such as classroom assistants, support staff, attendance officers, instrumental tutors and other visiting specialists, and not to replace staff who have retired either at the normal time or taken early retirement.

Fife, for example, is reducing its out-of-school hours learning activities by 25 per cent to achieve a saving of pound;150,000 and saving a further pound;250,000 on curriculum support; a review of its psychology service is expected to save pound;58,000.

East Ayrshire expects to save pound;556,000 through a review of school management structures and a review of its arts provision to yield pound;77,000.

COUNCILS CUT BACK ON CPD AND ABSENCE COVER

Before this year's council budgets were set, Glasgow announced a freeze in continuing professional development (CPD) and cuts in absence cover till March, although these cuts have been restored for the next financial year.

With the vast majority of new budgets set, it appears that a minority of councils have actually cut back on CPD, including: North Lanarkshire by pound;200,000 (although it insists there will be no reduction in activity), Aberdeenshire by pound;21,000, East Ayrshire by pound;198,000, North Ayrshire by an unspecified amount, West Dunbartonshire by pound;72,000 (a 15 per cent reduction), South Ayrshire by pound;47,000 and Orkney by pound;30,000.

Exceptionally, East Renfrewshire has increased its CPD budget by 3 per cent.

No authorities have earmarked absence cover under devolved school management budgets as a cost-saving target, although West Lothian has cut pound;75,000 from its centrally funded absence cover budget. West Dunbartonshire is making cuts to its long-term maternity and absence cover budgets of pound;125,203, or 10 per cent.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, warned this week that if the resources were not in place for delivering A Curriculum for Excellence at the start of the programme, it would be very difficult for schools as time developed.

"It put us on the back foot when councils should be trying to do the very opposite," he said.

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