Scottish councils must feel like the walls are closing in. They have had to maintain teacher numbers since 2011-12, council tax has been frozen since 2008-09 and now there are moves afoot to enshrine in law a 25-hour teaching week (see article on pages 6-7).
This is not just about maintaining the status quo and ensuring that councils don’t dilute the teacher contact time currently on offer in their increasingly desperate search for cuts.
For some councils this will cost money; not just pennies, but millions.
Even in secondary, the 25-hour week would be a problem for Midlothian and Dundee, the two authorities that are delivering less than 25 hours of taught time per week in their high schools, according to figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request earlier this year by the thinktank Reform Scotland.
However, at primary level at least eight Scottish councils would have to increase their hours. The figure is “at least eight” because as far as the Reform Scotland research is concerned, Highland is delivering 950 hours per year, exactly 25 hours per week. But, in fact, that is not the case.
In the early years of primary, Highland pupils have for many years been taught for 22.5 hours per week. That local authority is actually going further and looking to move to a 22.5-hour week across all primary schools – in an attempt to save £4.1 million.
A decision to enforce 25 hours would cost Highland £4 million and set it the challenge of recruiting more teachers.
Given the present teacher recruitment challenge in the north, it is difficult to conceive of where these additional teachers might come from.
There’s a wonderful tool that quickly shows the measures proved to improve learning, and how much bang each one gives you for your buck.
Created by England’s Education Endowment Foundation, it says that extending school time has “low impact for moderate cost”.
Using the existing hours more effectively – before considering extending the school day – might be cheaper and more efficient, it suggests.
You could argue that this is not about extending the school day, but simply ensuring all children get equal access to school, irrespective of where they live.
Reform Scotland found that the amount of teacher contact time a Scottish pupil receives can vary by up to 149 hours per year in primary school and 245 hours in secondary school, depending upon local authority area. Calculated over the course of a full period of primary school, or five years at secondary, this can mean the difference of an additional year’s schooling.
It is, however, worth considering why some councils have less teaching time.
In the Highland council area, children in the early years of primary have historically had a shorter day because many have to travel considerable distances to get to school.
While the school day may be shorter, they arrive home far later than children in other parts of the country.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is this: should we trust councils to deliver education? Increasingly the general political consensus seems to be that we should not.