`We can't allow money to limit our ambitions'
Local authorities must think "very carefully" before making dramatic decisions about how to cope with tighter budgets, the new education secretary has warned.
Angela Constance, who took over from Michael Russell at the end of November, said that any proposals - such as shortening the school day - would have to "fly with parents" before councils considered introducing them.
"Life is demanding for families, particularly for working parents, and I am sure any local authority would think very carefully about implementing such changes," she said.
Speaking exclusively to TESS, the education secretary acknowledged the difficult financial situation that councils were in and said this meant "we will all have to find smarter and better ways of working".
She added: "What we must not do is allow the financial situation to limit our ambitions for our children. We cannot allow that."
Ms Constance warned councils off making cuts to unprotected areas of education such as the arts and instrumental music. "If you look at the evidence, it shows that music and the arts make a very direct contribution to the attainment of our children," she said. "These things are important and we have to be careful that we don't view them, whether it is music tuition or libraries, as soft extras."
The minister also stressed that the government was committed to maintaining teacher numbers, after teaching unions voiced fears this week about a possible "stitch-up" in light of council budgets (see page 12). But she said her number one priority would be to close the attainment gap.
"You can't drive up attainment for all children and address the attainment gap without good quality teaching and the [right]number of teachers," she told TESS, stressing that this was a "crucial factor".
The Scottish government has committed itself to talks on maintaining the pupil-teacher ratio, but the school census published in December shows a small decrease in the number of teachers, prompting concerns from unions.
"I won't demur from my disappointment over that," Ms Constance conceded. "And that indeed is something that we have and will continue to discuss with our partners."
John Stodter, general secretary of education directors' body ADES, said that councils had difficult decisions to make to balance their budgets, adding that with teacher numbers protected and taking up about two-thirds of education budgets, other areas of education could be disproportionately affected.
He said there was no Scotland-wide approach to planned cuts, and called for wider discussion about structural issues such as the length of the school year or the school day.
With regard to teacher workload, Ms Constance confirmed that efforts to tackle the issue would continue. Teachers have repeatedly raised this as a concern over the past year amid the ongoing implementation of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and efforts to prepare for the new National exams.
"Before I was elected into Parliament, I was a front-line social worker. I understand the demands of workload, paperwork and concerns about bureaucracy," Ms Constance said. "It is not in anybody's interest for teachers to be burdened by bureaucracy. We want them to be able to teach and interact with the children."
The minister said that CfE was now "moving into a different stage" and it was important to "guard against any complacency and continue the very good work we have done with other partners to ensure that we deliver the promise of CfE".
There were now "huge opportunities to ensure that the senior phase of CfE really does match up to the expectations and ambitions of our young people", she added.
"It is really important to me that in the senior phase, we get that really personal blend of opportunities for every young person. We will have young people doing their Highers in English and maths and perhaps doing a foundation apprenticeship or an HNC."
Taking over from Michael Russell, Scotland's longest-serving education secretary, had given her "big boots to fill", the former training, youth and women's employment secretary said.
"But without stating the obvious, we are different. In terms of my own leadership style, I would describe myself as someone who knows my own mind. I am inclusive by instinct and that comes from the youth employment brief.
"Do people make assumptions about me based on my background and gender? I am sure they do, but that is really for others to comment on. I have a job to focus on."
The second part of this interview will run next week