`The public sector has to stop pretending'

20th February 2015 at 00:00
Opposition to shorter pupil week is too `simplistic', argues AHDS

The national body for primary school leaders has taken the controversial step of backing proposals to shorten the pupil week, arguing that blanket opposition to education cuts is "simplistic".

The AHDS has called for a pragmatic acceptance of proposals to cut the number of hours children spend in school, even though they have so far been met with a hostile reaction from parents and Scotland's biggest teaching union, the EIS.

Falkirk Council last week became the first authority to press ahead with plans to reduce the pupil week from 25 hours to 22.5 hours, prompting a petition that has already attracted more than 2,500 signatures. Last year, Highland shelved similar plans in the face of widespread protests, and West Dunbartonshire and Fife have this month dropped their own proposals.

The focus on cuts came in the same week as local authorities body Cosla insisted that teacher numbers were not crucial to high educational standards and threatened the Scottish government with legal action, claiming that maintaining teacher-pupil ratios could have a damaging knock-on effect for children with additional support needs.

Greg Dempster, general secretary of the AHDS, said: "The outrage directed at councils for making these proposals [to shorten the pupil week] is a little simplistic".

He added that no council would be celebrating putting forward such plans but warned that the education system was "creaking badly" under financial pressure.

"In short, the Scottish public sector needs to make cuts whether it wants to or not," he continued. "To pretend that all services can continue as they were, or to offer more, is a bit like the emperor's new clothes."

The AHDS would not support a reduction in the pupil week under normal circumstances, he added, and he was "very disappointed that councils were being forced to look at [such] proposals".

Mr Dempster insisted that such a move would bring certain advantages, such as more staff availability for vacant posts and supply positions. He added that shortened pupil weeks would "make the various change and improvement agendas more manageable for schools and school leadership teams".

He also noted significant shortages of primary teachers in many authorities, with some reporting more than 40 unfilled vacancies. School leaders were plugging the gaps by taking classes or extra assemblies themselves, according to Mr Dempster. Most councils had added to headteachers' load by cutting levels of office staff "to the bone", he added.

In an AHDS survey last year, 28.5 per cent of respondents felt that a reduced pupil week was unacceptable and 59.5 per cent deemed it acceptable.

"The stark reality is that cuts are coming and if not this change, then what are the alternatives?" Mr Dempster concluded.

But EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: "There is absolutely no educational argument for cutting the primary school week and the EIS will continue to resist these types of damaging proposals with great vigour, wherever they arise."

Falkirk Council told TESS that the idea, due to be implemented from 2016-17, would be dropped if funding could be found from elsewhere.

John Stodter, general secretary of education directors' body ADES, said that countries with significantly fewer hours of schooling than Scotland, such as Finland, did as well as or better in education.

Cutting the amount of time pupils spend in the classroom to 22.5 hours a week could create more time for breaks or less formal learning, including sports, the arts, enterprise and music, perhaps using outside experts, Mr Stodter said.

Meanwhile, the dispute over teacher numbers between Cosla and the Scottish government has escalated after the local authorities body had attainment data analysed.

"We can find absolutely no relationship between pupil-teacher ratios and the performance of kids in the Scottish education system," said Colin Mair, chief executive of the Improvement Service, which produced the report.

Cosla has accused the Scottish government of acting illegally by threatening to withhold councils' share of pound;51 million in education funding if they do not preserve teacher numbers. The body has said it will explore legal action if the government's stance does not change.

Cosla told TESS that by fixing teacher numbers at a certain level - regardless of whether a school's pupil roll was falling - councils would be restricted in allocating resources elsewhere, especially for "more vulnerable groups".

Similar concerns were expressed by the Scottish Children's Services Coalition (SCSC), which underlined the importance of ongoing investment in support staff and educational psychologists. Any drop in funding for support services as a result of protecting teacher numbers was a "false economy", a spokesman said.

Although it was ultimately beneficial to maintain teacher numbers, the SCSC suggested that the best way to protect vulnerable children was to ensure that support services also received extra funding.

A Scottish government spokeswoman said: "Ministers have acted legally at every stage, and we do not understand the basis on which Cosla believes that Scottish ministers can or cannot act in this way."

A meeting with Cosla was planned for next week, the spokeswoman added, but ministers had made it clear that their stance would not change.

`Absolute lunacy'

A petition against Falkirk Council's proposals to cut the school week has attracted 2,500 signatures. Comments include:

"Teachers already struggle to fit the curriculum into the working week."

"I am a high school teacher in Falkirk and am already concerned about the level of reading and writing of primary school pupils."

"I have worked as a teacher all my life. More and more is asked of schools all the time - how can they achieve this with a cut in the school week?"

"I am a parent of two boys and a teacher also. As the government insists on Scots language and two hours' PE and so on, more time is lost to core skills in literacy and more importantly numeracy, which is an absolute requirement."

"This is not helpful to teachers either. Save the money by not giving free school meals to everyone."

"Schools are struggling to raise attainment as it is. These cuts will have a disastrous effect on pupils from our poorest areas."

"It's absolute lunacy to have increased preschool hours yet consider cutting the educational school day."

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