Councils ‘fined’ millions for drop in staff numbers

9th January 2015 at 00:00
‘Ludicrous’ policy means authorities with good pupil-teacher ratios lose vital cash

The Scottish government has withheld millions of pounds from councils that failed to maintain teacher numbers in 2015, TESS can reveal.

The situation has infuriated council bosses as some authorities missing out on funding have some of the best pupil-teacher ratios in Scotland, according to new official figures.

The local authorities affected have attacked the government, arguing that they are being punished because of “a ludicrous snapshot of teacher numbers on one particular day”.

One council, North Ayrshire, will not receive a grant of more than £250,000 because its teacher number dropped by just four between 2014 and 2015, despite the pupil-teacher ratio improving.

The 10 councils where teacher numbers fell between 2014 and 2015 have missed out on an estimated £3.5 million of payments. Hardest hit was Glasgow City Council, which lost almost £1 million.

Call for national formula

The government has given councils financial incentives to maintain teacher numbers since 2011, as part of deals on teachers’ pay and conditions. The SNP also promised in its 2007 manifesto to maintain teacher numbers despite falling school rolls “to cut class sizes”.

But 2015 is the first year that individual councils have been penalised for missing their targets. The situation has led John Stodter, general secretary of education directors’ body ADES, to call for a national staffing formula.

“Putting a number on teachers, and teachers only, significantly reduces flexibility for schools and local authorities and their management capacity,” he said.

The Scottish government judges whether or not teacher numbers have been maintained through the annual teacher census carried out in September and published in December.

However, in some councils, TESS understands, discussions took place about whether maintaining teacher numbers was worthwhile financially. Glasgow, for instance, stands to lose almost £1 million, but employing 45 more teachers to maintain numbers would have cost at least £1.3 million, assuming a cost of about £30,000 per staff member.

Mr Stodter told TESS that he was “not conscious of any council that had deliberately taken the decision not to hit the target”.

Councils received £41 million early last year to deliver the government’s pledge to maintain teacher numbers and the pupil-teacher ratio, with the promise of a further £10 million this month if they were successful. The government has confirmed that the 10 councils that failed to hit the targets had not been allocated their share of the £10 million.

It also said Dundee City Council would receive just £40,000 because, while the teacher number increased by one, the pupil-teacher ratio worsened. Some of the councils hit with the “fine” had just a handful of teachers fewer on census day in 2015 than in 2014.

North Ayrshire missed its target by just four teachers, and in Moray the number fell by just six while the pupil-teacher ratio was maintained. Meanwhile, Argyll and Bute, which had the best pupil-teacher ratio in 2015, is also set to miss out to the tune of £170,000 because the pupil-teacher ratio dropped from 12.2 to 12.4 and teacher numbers also fell.

Jeff Leaver, chairman of Dumfries and Galloway’s education committee, said: “At a time of unprecedented financial pressure, because of a ludicrous snapshot of teacher numbers on one particular day, the Scottish government has unreasonably chosen to punish the education sector, depriving local children of £303,000 for their education.”

Aberdeen City Council had spent £700,000 on recruitment and taken “a range of innovative steps” to address recruitment problems, said the city’s convener of finance, policy and resources, Willie Young. There was now “a real danger” that missing out on funding would impact on frontline services, he added.

A Scottish government spokesperson said: “No money has been withdrawn from any council, but those councils which did not meet their side of the agreement are not being allocated a share of the additional £10 million.”

@TESScotland

‘Irrelevant’ targets

Local authorities umbrella body Cosla has hit out at the government’s promise to maintain teacher numbers, calling it “a crazy, simplistic, ill-thought-through policy”.

A Cosla spokesman says: “Whatever way you dress it up, not hitting an arbitrary figure on a random day cannot be the way forward for education in Scotland. We have to be better than that.

“At Cosla we are totally uninterested in these numbers, which are nothing more than a snapshot in time which tells us nothing about the quality of education. It is becoming increasingly embarrassing that we continue to focus so hard on delivering a target which is so educationally irrelevant.”

However, the EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, argues that it is only right that the £10 million be distributed to the authorities that met or exceeded their commitments.

Larry Flanagan, EIS general secretary, says: “There is simply no logic in the argument, from Cosla and some of the failing authorities, that they should be allowed to keep this funding and spend it as they see fit. This extra funding was allocated for one purpose: to maintain teacher numbers.”

Government pledges £2m to train more teachers

Some councils have been critical of the Scottish government for not putting enough teachers into the system. The government responded on Sunday by announcing that it had released £2 million to train an extra 260 teachers in 2016-17.

There is, however, no guarantee that all these places will be filled, with universities already struggling to recruit students.

Last month TESS revealed that hundreds of 2015-16 places at Scottish universities had gone unfilled, with some subjects falling dramatically short. The government aimed to train 146 maths teachers on the one-year PGDE, for example, but only 76 places were filled. Other subjects falling some way below target included religious and moral education, computing, technological education and physics. Overall, 991 out of 1,165 places were taken, leaving 174 (15 per cent) unfilled.

The government said on Sunday that more places would be made available at all eight universities that provide teacher education in Scotland.

The increase of 60 primary and 200 secondary places will bring the total intake to 3,490, which the government said was up for the fifth year running.

@Henry_Hepburn

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