`Stop deciding budgets behind closed doors'

16th January 2015 at 00:00
Parliament berates local authorities over `secretive' practices

Local authorities have come under fire for failing to reveal how they reach crucial decisions about spending on schools, after education directors admitted that "sensitivities" meant that most deliberations took place behind closed doors.

The Scottish Parliament's Education and Culture Committee heard from parents' groups that council meetings to discuss cuts were shrouded in "secrecy", and has demanded that processes become more open at both a local and a national level.

Education directors' body ADES said it welcomed the intervention, despite the criticism of its members. The best way to achieve openness, it said, was to explore nationwide changes rather than tinkering with local budgets.

Last year the parliamentary committee appealed for views on the Scottish government's 2015-16 draft budget; this week it highlighted that only two of the 32 councils - Dumfries and Galloway and South Lanarkshire - had responded.

In its report on the budget (bit.lyMoneyEdu), the committee writes: "It is regrettable that our ability to undertake this work was hampered by the extremely low response rate of local authorities.We do not consider this response satisfactory given the multibillion-pound cost of school expenditure and its importance to communities, pupils and parents throughout the country."

The report adds that public consultation is only meaningful if everyone is "sufficiently well informed by the decision-makers" but says "this does not appear to be the case".

Parents' groups told the committee that local authorities had failed to engage with them, citing "secrecy and political motivations as possible barriers". They also complained that councils were "not always transparent" and could be "patronising".

The committee was taken aback that education directors apparently agreed with parents about the clandestine nature of decision-making.

An ADES submission revealed: "The reality is that draft budgets are now kept largely confidential owing to the real sensitivities involved (political, workforce-related, community-related and so on)."

The committee responded: "We appreciate ADES' efforts to be candid, but were surprised by its statement about confidentiality in budgetary discussions."

Some local authorities were better than others at public consultation, ADES general secretary John Stodter told TESS. "The more challenging the budget reductions are, the more difficult it is for authorities to meaningfully consult on that, because their first duty and legal responsibility - if, for example, they're considering potential redundancies - is towards the staff themselves," he said.

It would be easier for councils to be more open, according to Mr Stodter, if there was "system-wide" change throughout Scotland. Altering the structure of the school week or year, for example, or the period of education between S5 and the end of a university degree would require nationwide consultation. By contrast, local cuts tended to draw the attention only of those directly affected, he said, adding that this led to an "inequitable" system with budget cuts around Scotland affecting people to varying degrees.

"We think it would be more strategic and more honest to make some big system changes across Scotland," he said.

Douglas Chapman, education spokesman for local authorities body Cosla, said: "There are no easy choices now and councils often have to weigh up the merits of one difficult decision versus another.

"Given this situation, it's understandable that councils have to balance the importance of consultation with communities with the need for considered reflection on the choices they face through the democratic decision-making process."

Mr Chapman added that Cosla knew of no council that had not had a public budget consultation "in one form or another".

Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said it was time for "more clarity and openness in our system so that parents and others are able to see, understand and compare what is happening within and between local authorities".

Barbara Schuler, policy manager for the National Parent Forum of Scotland, similarly called on local authorities to hold "open and realistic" discussions with parents.

The Scottish government responded to the committee's suggestion that it, too, could do more to inform the public about education spending.

"We are always looking for new ways to engage with parents, carers, children and young people so they can participate in the decisions that affect education," a spokeswoman said, pointing to plans for a children's summit to canvass their views on a host of issues.

Meanwhile, the committee announced plans to carry out a year-long investigation into Scotland's educational attainment gap (bit.lyAttainmentGap), and has called for submissions.

`There are leaner times ahead'

Bryan Paterson, pictured, headteacher of Kilmarnock Academy in East Ayrshire, says: "Councils are in the very unenviable position of trying to balance their budgets in a time of extreme austerity.

"I have a lot of sympathy for them, and there are leaner times ahead."

He calls for spending decisions to be devolved to headteachers so that they can better meet the needs of their communities.

"We hear a lot of talk about transformational change in Scotland," Mr Paterson says. "In reality, that means cuts to admin, teaching staff, resources and other council services. I've got about pound;1.60 per pupil per week to spend on materials.

"We're supposed to be delivering a paradigm shift with Curriculum for Excellence - in these circumstances, that's going to be extremely challenging for all of us."

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