Plans to introduce controversial cost-cutting measures that would reduce school hours could be thwarted by the government, it has emerged, as one of Scotland’s biggest councils took its first steps towards shortening the primary working week.
Local authorities have warned for some time that as the strain on their finances increases, they will have to make unpalatable cuts.
But proposed changes to the Education Bill could block one way of potentially saving several million pounds in a single stroke – councils would be required to provide each primary pupil with at least 25 hours’ teaching time.
The legislation would also allow ministers to put in place a minimum number of hours in secondary schools.
The proposed changes to the bill are expected to be considered by the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee next week.
Earlier this week, Highland Council began consulting on cutting teaching time to 22.5 hours – the statutory minimum – by ending school for P4-7s at lunchtime on Fridays.
Angela Constance (pictured), Cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, said that the amendment to the bill was important because such decisions should be made for educational, not financial reasons.
She added: “We will legislate to provide certainty for pupils, parents and teachers about the length of the school week – a teacher time guarantee that every one of our children and young people should expect, and which they deserve.”
The government tabled the amendment on the working week very shortly after Scottish Labour submitted a similar one, saying that it would help to close the gap between richer and poorer children.
‘A risk for pupils’
In additon to Highland, Stirling Council is also actively exploring a 22.5-hour week, which could eventually save £900,000 a year, although the council admits that there is “a risk of pupils’ educational experience being affected by having less time in school”.
When asked by TESS whether they would consider a shorter week, the majority of councils definitively ruled it out. But eight would not rule it out, despite having no such plans for the time being.
Highland’s plans come a year after vehement opposition persuaded it to drop a similar proposal, which would have shaved off 30 minutes from each school day.
The shortened P4-7 week is part of a drive to find 6 per cent of savings in the council’s budget. It would be expected to save £4.1 million per year by reducing costs for energy, utilities, cleaning and administration; it would also enable “more efficient timetabling”.
“By doing this, we can still support a full curriculum and it means that we need less savings in other areas,” states the council’s consultation document, published this week. “Identifying savings which don’t impact on teacher numbers is difficult,” it adds.
Attractive to councils
The speed with which Highland has revisited the idea underlines how attractive such a proposal might be for cash-strapped councils. Other ways of making large cuts – such as reducing teacher numbers or closing schools – have been made more difficult by government directives and legislation. But if the latest amendment goes into law, it would provide another barrier to potential savings.
Councils have also complained that the freeze on council tax since the SNP came to power in 2007 has forced them to consider making cuts that they may not have contemplated otherwise.
Aberdeen City Council, in a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee this week, says that such issues are placing “increasing strain on other council frontline services”.
Once again, the idea of reducing pupils’ time in school has provoked furious reactions. One comment in a discussion on Highland Council’s Facebook page read: “It’s a disgrace that this question was even asked. You should hang your head in shame.” Another user wrote: “Has the council finally lost the bloody plot?”
At the start of this year, Falkirk Council also climbed down on plans for a 22.5-hour week after parents protested. Other councils to shelve such plans recently include Fife and West Dunbartonshire.
The argument for cutting time at school
Any international analysis of educational outcomes and hours spent at school demonstrates that many high-performing nations have a later start to formal education. There is no direct association between achievement and hours spent at school in the early stages of education.
There are some local authorities where pupils in P1-3 receive less time in direct teacher-led classroom activities; they have not seen any deterioration of standards.
However, there is much to be said for local decisions on this issue, rather than blunt legislation. For example, the impact on the length of time away from home for 5-year-olds in rural areas would be significant.
Legislating for 25 hours is likely to cost some £10 million across Scotland in total. At a time of a national teacher shortage, this is an amendment unlikely to succeed. We feel that local decisions and circumstances should prevail.
John Stodter is general secretary of education directors’ body ADES
The argument against
The EIS teaching union vehemently opposes proposals that would dilute the quality of education in primary schools by shortening the pupil week.
The argument that children’s educational experience would be unaffected by cutting their time in class is absurd; it is disingenuous to suggest that the time spent with their teacher would not be altered.
Such arguments distort the fact that primary classes may spend most of their time with a single teacher for 22.5 hours but the rest is spent experiencing other vital educational opportunities, which are part of the Curriculum for Excellence approach to the whole child.
Reducing the primary week is a cost-cutting measure that prioritises financial savings over the educational experience. It will cut teacher numbers and learning time.
Larry Flanagan is general secretary of the EIS teaching union
A primary head’s view
The view of staff would depend partly on whether a change to 22.5 hours would mean that schools are still expected to do everything they did before.
I think that there’s a growing expectation for schools to provide a panacea for all society’s problems – it’s already difficult contending with that in the time that we have now.
If a shorter school week means a Friday afternoon dedicated to non-contact time, there’s an argument that it could improve the quality of education. It would give teachers a chance to plan more collegiately and better.
Even setting that aside, I think that teachers generally find a way to ensure that pupils’ education doesn’t suffer, regardless of what else might be going on.
However, parents might not be happy with an early finish on Fridays as they would have to find childcare. In addition, if there’s a perception among parents that standards are falling, I think that you would start to see more families leaving for independent schools in some parts of Scotland.
But if the idea was to start every school day a little later and end a bit earlier, there could be advantages – that extra bit of light in the morning, that extra time for gritters in winter, could make pupils’ journeys to school safer.
The author is a headteacher at a medium-sized school in the north of Scotland