Retreat and retrenchment

2nd January 2009 at 00:00
Stability created by the teachers' agreement is under threat. Henry Hepburn reports

History books will remember that years of harmony in Scottish education came to an end in 2008 - and the Government's concordat with local authorities will be to blame, it has been claimed.

The warning came from the Educational Institute of Scotland's general secretary, who fears the stability created by the teachers' agreement is under threat as ministers and local authorities square up to each other.

"Simply stated, the Scottish Government's much-touted 'historic' concordat just isn't working," Ronnie Smith said.

The removal of ring-fenced funding meant authorities were struggling to deliver on Government promises, such as smaller class sizes, extra permanent posts for new teachers and universal access to a nursery teacher.

"It is clear that there is a fundamental incompatibility between a government setting more national priorities, while simultaneously lauding increased autonomy for the local authorities which are expected to deliver those priorities from their existing funds," he said.

But the difficulties were more than financial, since "some (local authorities) don't believe in these policies, never mind having the money for them". There were increasing signs of authorities refusing to implement Government policy, and some, such as Highland and Renfrewshire were "walking away" from the previous Scottish Executive's promise of maximum classes of 20 in S1 and S2 for English and maths.

"In four or five years, we might look back at this year and see a move away from what is a positive, post-McCrone era into a period of retreat and retrenchment," Mr Smith said.

He insisted that the Government could not stand by and blame local authorities for failing to implement national policy. Despite the concordat, it still had "levers" to influence local decision-making, through, for example, the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers.

Local authorities, however, were also to blame. The concordat had been "superficially appealing", and in their haste to sign up to it and the associated council-tax freeze, authorities had "limited their flexibility to address local needs".

School budgets were being "pared to the bone", resulting in a reduction in subjects offered, fewer jobs for new teachers and reductions to other school staff; budget cutbacks in Aberdeen last month would result in the loss of 200 classroom assistants.

Mr Smith does not believe, however, that there is any chance of the Government reversing the concordat: ministers consider it "sacrosanct", he has been reliably informed.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said it was "confident that progress will be demonstrated" in education services.

The Government was providing record funding for local authorities, including a 5.1 per cent increase for the next financial year. The removal of ring-fencing allowed authorities to keep efficiency savings to reinvest in front-line services, while the latest council-tax freeze would make an extra Pounds 70 million available for authorities which went ahead with it.

She added that unions could enter into talks directly with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

Isabel Hutton, Cosla spokeswoman for education, children and young people, described the EIS stance as "pure pantomime". She claimed the union had never been a fan of the concordat, with its focus on giving councils freedom to improve educational outcomes: "We need to remember that the EIS continues to live in the old world of inputs - they are hardly an objective and independent voice."

Ms Hutton was unhappy with the union's "speculation" that 2009 would bring more cuts, pointing to the increased education spend indicated by authorities' recent financial returns. "All authority budgets are under pressure, in part from the economic downturn, but education and children's services remain a top priority for councils," she said.

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