Profit out of loss

1st June 2007 at 01:00
Cost-saving measures put future of education bodies in the balance

THE TWO bodies in charge of shaping Scotland's curriculum and assessment have had their future thrown into sudden doubt as a result of the new government's spending review.

Learning and Teaching Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority could be put on a more "commercial footing" and make a profit, if ministers accept the recommendations of an indepen-dent study of Scottish Execu-tive spending.

John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, has made clear that all the proposals will be considered, apart from one concerning Scottish Water, after the review identified spending "headroom" amounting to savings of pound;1.2 billion, of which education could yield pound;48 million.

The proposals affecting LTS and the SQA alone could produce savings of Pounds 22 million, according to the review group of leading public sector figures, which was chaired by Bill Howat, former chief executive of the Western Isles Council, who was previously a senior government official.

The group goes so far as to question whether LTS should exist at all. "We are concerned that LTS has struggled to deliver over a prolonged period and therefore question whether continuation of this organisation provides any net gain to Scot-tish education," the 181-page report states.

Learning and Teaching Scotland, which was given increasingly pivotal roles in helping to implement the previous government's reforms, from A Curriculum for Excellence to Glow, the schools digital net-work, believes the Howat group, which began its work in 2005, is out of date and has failed to keep up with developments in the organisation.

The report says spending by the executive's education department has "potential for overlap" and there is a "lack of specificity of some budget lines". It adds: "Within some areas of the department, there was little evidence of pilot programmes ever being considered to have demonstrated poor outcomes, leading to a corresponding continuation of expenditure regardless of results."

In a back-handed compliment, the Howat group said it was impressed by the subject know-ledge of many of the key people in the education department, "but unconvinced that they all had the skills to manage large financial budgets".

Other controversial suggestions in the report include clawing back cash from local authorities which fail to make their contribution to the national target of 53,000 teachers; streamlining the separate funds for teacher support and new educational developments on which the report estimates over pound;17 million could be saved; and stepping up school closures as a "high priority".

The Howat group has also suggested that the existence of Advanced Higher programmes in schools should mean that the four-year honours degree in universities could be cut to three years. Universities Scot-land responded by pointing out that nearly every HE system in the world, from Europe to the United States and China, has a four-year degree.

The review team accepts that the arguments for and against a three-year degree are "complex" and it does not put a savings figure against such a move. But it does suggest that pound;82 million could be removed from university and college spending, which would represent a 5 per cent saving, by better cost controls.

This could include confining Higher National courses to the FE sector which can provide them more cheaply: an HND in business studies costs pound;2,700 in a college and pound;4,000 in a university.

Mr Swinney said in his response to the Howat report that it painted a picture of a "crowded landscape" in the public sector. He will report to parliament on the spending review in the autumn.

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