Latest cuts could `lead to lost generation'

3rd July 2015 at 01:00
Authorities reveal plans to slash support for vulnerable pupils

Some of Scotland's most vulnerable pupils are bearing the brunt of education cuts, with new evidence suggesting that nothing is off limits as local authorities come under huge pressure to find savings.

Additional support needs (ASN) budgets have been targeted in several local authorities, and clothing grants, school food, educational psychologists, school nurses and speech therapy have also been hit - leading children's organisations to denounce the plans as a "false economy".

Meanwhile, education directors have warned that the lack of a national strategy on education spending risks making poorer children worse off once the country emerges from austerity.

The details of budget cuts have been laid bare in evidence submitted to the Scottish Parliament's education and culture committee (bit.lyEduBudgets), after claims from unions and parent groups that funding decisions were being made behind closed doors.

The committee made its displeasure clear earlier this year (bit.lyMoneyEdu) after it called for authorities' views on Scotland's 2015-16 draft budget - but got replies from only two. As a result, it pursued every council for detailed information on planned education spending and cuts, and has published responses from all 32 this week.

Although teacher numbers are protected, almost every other area of spending appears vulnerable and small savings are being eked out in myriad ways. There are few trends, but reductions in services for vulnerable children are common.

Children with ASN may have to get by with less assistance, with support budgets to be cut in several authorities, including Shetland (saving pound;207,000), the Borders (pound;185,000) and Inverclyde (pound;148,000). Speech and language therapy is to be reduced in Falkirk and Stirling, saving pound;50,000 in each, and South Ayrshire will claw back pound;70,000 from a similar cutback.

The national effort to reduce class sizes continues to suffer a slow death. East Ayrshire wants to drop a commitment to keep some primary classes down to 18 pupils, thereby saving pound;334,000. South Lanarkshire also wants to give up that commitment and to review the use of chartered teachers (a pound;169,000 saving). East Renfrewshire, meanwhile, hopes to recover pound;170,000 by removing free fruit from nurseries and P1-3 classes, and breakfasts from some P1-3s.

`Extremely concerned'

The Scottish Children's Services Coalition (SCSC) said it was "extremely concerned" about the impact of cuts on ASN pupils, especially since extra funding for councils was now dependent on protecting teacher numbers.

SCSC spokesman Stuart Jacob, director at Falkland House School in Fife, said: "Cutting support to the likes of educational psychologists, speech therapists and support staff is a false economy as it is in the interests of all concerned that we continue to invest in these to address the needs of the most vulnerable in our society."

He said that ASN pupils numbered 140,542 - more than one in five of the school population - with that figure widely expected to rise. He also pointed out that "lifeline" services such as educational psychologists were already subject to a "postcode lottery" and further cuts risked creating a "lost generation".

Education directors' body ADES said there was a clear need for more shared services across local authorities and a national approach to budgets such as teacher payroll, ICT, psychology and curriculum development. Pressure could become acute over the next four or five years, according to general secretary John Stodter, as the money available to councils might be reduced by a quarter before austerity came to an end.

"That's a huge net reduction in budgets," he said. "What worries me is that we don't seem to have a strategic overview on any of the decisions being made and their impact."

He added that although the Scottish government had made it a priority to tackle poverty and the attainment gap, some plans for saving money "could actually make the issue worse".

Councils should have greater flexibility over teacher numbers to adapt to local circumstances, he argued, adding: "All the efficiencies have pretty much been squeezed out of the system."

Mr Stodter said there was now no area of education budgets that cost-cutting councils would not consider for savings, although they would still be wary about some that could prove controversial such as major school reorganisations.

`Easy target'

Jennifer Barnes, senior professional officer for Voice Scotland, said that cuts to pupil support and a reduction in the number of classroom assistants would undermine national drives to raise attainment and improve literacy. But her union was also receiving more enquiries about "adequacy of basic health and safety measures" for ASN pupils in light of reduced numbers of support staff, she said.

Andrea Bradley, assistant secretary of the EIS, said the teaching union was "deeply concerned" about the impact of such cuts on Scotland's most vulnerable learners.

"Support for pupils with learning and behavioural needs is being withdrawn at a time when there is a drive to raise attainment for all and close the gap in outcomes between the most and least disadvantaged of pupils," she said.

"If we are serious about achieving this, adequate numbers of additional support needs teachers and support staff are essential. Units providing support for children with behavioural needs should not be seen as an easy target for cuts."

Save, save, save

Councils are finding eclectic ways to save, the parliamentary submissions show. Their cost-cutting measures include:

East Ayrshire Cutting pupil swimming (pound;26,890)

East Dunbartonshire Energy efficiency measures (pound;157,500); cutting phone costs (pound;20,000)

Falkirk Raising breakfast club charges by 5p (pound;5,000)

Fife Cutting printing and phone charges, including a reduction in colour photocopying (pound;20,000)

Glasgow Shutting down ICT to save power in primary schools (pound;142,000)

Highland Cutting training and CPD including conferences (pound;20,000); standard timetabling across secondary schools (pound;150,000); transferring management of community use of secondaries to an arm's length organisation (pound;17,000)

North Lanarkshire Cutting school librarians (pound;56,000)

South Ayrshire Cutting school nurses (pound;84,000); reducing technicians and clerical support (pound;37,886)

Western Isles Shared headships (pound;58,000); cutting clothing grant budget (pound;5,000); cutting training budgets (pound;31,000); cutting school handyman post (pound;27,000)

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