Year of the tightened belt

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
Budget complications mean schools face big financial pressures in the coming 12 months

Schools in almost every part of Scotland will face major financial pressures in the coming year, a survey of education budgets by The TESS has confirmed.

"It looks like a year of famine," one senior council figure put it.

The survey covers 25 (of the 32) councils which had set their budgets and frozen council tax levels by mid-week. With the SNP in power or sharing it in nine of the 25, some have talked up their budgets. Highland, run by an SNPIndependent coalition, said there would be "growth in key services". Scottish Borders, where Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Independents are in control, promised "significant investment in front-line services".

At first sight, The TESS survey suggests a generous deal for education - with increases of up to 16 per cent. But much of the extra cash is eaten up by pay and price rises, and the additional costs of transport, energy and special needs. Budgets that cover education also include spending on other activities, such as wider learning, leisure and the arts.

There are also complications this year because pound;2.2 billion, which was previously ring-fenced for specific purposes, is now free for councillors to distribute as they wish. In Glasgow, for example, net expenditure on education points to an increase of pound;15 million, or 3 per cent. But, if the former ring-fenced allocation is subtracted, the true increase is 2 per cent, or pound;10 million of "new money".

According to John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, school spending is being squeezed, as education authorities are being forced to make "efficiency savings" of 2 per cent.

He commented: "The increases are offset by additional costs, such as salaries, contractual uplifts, residential care for children and general inflationary rises. All in all, it's a tight settlement for authorities, as they have already achieved the obvious efficiencies over the years."

Mr Stodter said councils also face major new burdens which have a knock-on effect on services like education, such as implementing single status and equal pay agreements, and meeting the costs of the three-year teachers' pay deal, where salaries are 70 per cent of education budgets.

Critics also point to unfunded policies, such as the Government's pledge to reduce P1-3 class sizes to 18. But ministers stress that councils will be able to retain the 2 per cent efficiency savings for the first time, which should provide scope to achieve the class-size cuts out of the pound;11bn they will receive from the Government in 2008-09.

Details, pages 4-5; Leader, page 22; Chatroom, page 31.

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