Who can best foot the bill?

19th March 2010 at 00:00

As most people will be aware, the Educational Institute of Scotland is running a campaign against any budget cuts in Scottish education.

As a teacher and passionate advocate for education, I understand and support the sentiment and motivation behind the campaign, but I can't quite see how it's going to be possible to ring-fence any single Scottish public service - for all that it might make my job a lot easier.

No less a person than Sir John Elvidge, Scotland's senior civil servant, speaking at a conference on budget cuts in January, warned that public service spending in Scotland is likely to be reduced by 10 per cent in real terms in three years' time, and possibly 20 per cent in seven years compared with current levels.

Taking Sir John's figure of 10 per cent - which will be closer to 12 per cent with the compounding effect - I thought it might be useful to explore the impact on public services in Scotland.

The most recent figures available for Scottish education expenditure relate to the financial year 2007-08. In that year, the revenue expenditure was pound;4.7 billion. Using this figure, a 10 per cent reduction would equate to pound;470 million. The logic must be that, if this sum is not to be picked up by education, then it must be passed on to some other Scottish public service. So who would be best placed to pay this bill?

The Scottish health service had expenditure of pound;8.9bn in 2006-07. Savings of 10 per cent for the health service would be pound;890m - so perhaps they have their fair share of the challenge and the focus should lie elsewhere?

So how about the cost of running the Scottish Government? The 2010-11 draft budget for running its core administration is pound;258.3m - which is dwarfed by the pound;470m three-year saving that would be required of education.

Of course, Scottish education - apart from further and higher education - is funded through local authorities, so surely there must be significant opportunities for the burden of savings to lie with other local authority services?

Education's average share of the revenue expenditure for local authorities in 2007-08 was 42.6 per cent. Education and social work, which includes child protection and community care, takes that proportion up to 65 per cent. Add police, fire and emergency planning and you reach nearly 80 per cent. Throw in roads and transport, economic development and environmental services and the total is well beyond 90 per cent.

The reality is that local authorities cannot meet a 10 per cent saving from the net revenue expenditure of pound;11.1bn - ie pound;1.11bn - from the remainder of those services which might not be deemed as sacrosanct as some of those listed previously.

Perhaps Sir John was close to the truth when he suggested: "This is going to be an enormous challenge for any system - and it tells us that the right thing for all public sector managers to be doing at the moment is to err on the side of pessimism in their forecasts, and radicalism in their thinking."

For me, it is this latter trait which all involved in education will need to adopt if we are safely to navigate these difficult waters over the next few years.

I'll leave the last words with Sir John: "I think the shape of delivery of at least some public services is going to look completely different. I wish I knew which ones they were and which ones will look different, but it's obvious that we can't simply continue to run the models that we run for delivery of various public services."

Don Ledingham is director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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