Ministers on a collision course over staff numbers

16th January 2015 at 00:00
Councils warn budget package is ‘totally unacceptable’ after authorities hit with penalties for drop in teachers

THE SCOTTISH government is heading for another showdown with councils over the issue of teacher numbers.

The local authorities’ umbrella body, Cosla, said that it has had a “crystal-clear steer” from council leaders that the budget package on the table from the government – which includes £51 million to maintain school staff numbers – is “totally unacceptable”.

The government has given councils financial incentives to maintain the number of teachers they employ since 2011. However, last year, for the first time, it had to strike deals over maintaining levels of school staff with councils on an individual basis after it failed to agree a national deal with Cosla.

As a result, this month, 10 councils incurred financial penalties, ranging from just over £100,000 to almost £1 million (“Councils ‘fined’ millions for drop in staff numbers”, TESS, January 8), because individually they had failed to hit their targets.

Had the conditions of the 2015 deal been in line with previous years, councils would have been judged to have delivered, as teacher numbers rose nationally from 50,568 to 50,576, and the pupil-teacher ratio remained the same as in 2014, at 13.7:1.

This year the possibility of a national agreement has been put back on the agenda by finance secretary and deputy first minister John Swinney.

However, TESS understands that it will be a tough sell given the planned 3.5 per cent cut to local authority budgets and the growing disquiet about the educational value of the government’s teacher numbers policy. Cosla has branded the policy “crazy”, “simplistic” and “ill-thought-through”; and, individually, a number of councils have recently expressed their frustration (see box).

Deal ‘benefits councils’

The general secretary of education directors’ association ADES, John Stodter, urged councils to strike a national deal with government, arguing that it would give them greater flexibility. “Small decreases [in teacher numbers] in one area can be mitigated by small increases elsewhere: no individual council is penalised with a national approach as long as the national figure is broadly met,” he said.

This is effectively what happened in the first year of the national target for teacher numbers.

Meanwhile, councils have to let the government know by January 22 if they accept the budget deal.

A Cosla spokesman said: “As our president, Councillor David O’Neill, has already articulated, Cosla got a crystal-clear steer from council leaders at the end of December that the package of measures for local government within the Budget, including the council tax freeze and teacher numbers, is totally unacceptable.

“Not only have we got a huge cash cut [£350 million, or 3.5 per cent], but also additional pressures included, which will see job losses and services slashed. This is all because of policy choices from Scottish government.”

The Scottish government said: “The deputy first minister wrote to the president of Cosla following his Budget statement to Parliament on 16 December 2015 setting out proposals for the terms of the settlement to be provided to local government for 2016-17.

“He confirmed that the Scottish government’s proposal makes provision for a return to a national agreement to maintain teacher numbers at 2015-16 levels.”


‘Ludicrous snapshot’ of teacher numbers

Dumfries and Galloway Council has one of the best pupil-teacher ratios in Scotland, other than the island authorities, but this month, it did not receive its share of £10 million in Scottish government funding because, while it maintained the ratio, overall teacher numbers fell by 16 staff.

Jeff Leaver, chairman of Dumfries and Galloway’s education committee, says: “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.” Meanwhile, Gary Robinson, the leader of Shetland Islands Council, recently told MSPs his council was one of the last to sign up to the teacher numbers deal last year and it had come to regret it.

It had been forced to employ three teachers that it did not need in order to meet the government’s conditions that it maintain teacher numbers and pupil-teacher ratio, he said.

Mr Robinson added: “The penalty for our missing the target was less than the cost of the three teachers whom we have had to employ to maintain our 10:1 ratio.”

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