Teacher numbers: all you need to know

20th November 2015 at 00:00
What exactly does the SNP’s flagship policy entail – and can councils deliver it?

Earlier this month, North Lanarkshire director of education, Andrew Sutherland, was suspended “pending an internal investigation” into “the maintenance and accuracy of data on numbers of teaching staff”.

Education directors’ body ADES says its members are under “extreme pressure” to maintain teacher numbers and deliver this flagship Scottish government policy. Figures due to be published next month will show whether councils have been successful.

Here’s what you need to know…

What is the policy?

Since 2011 the Scottish government has given councils financial incentives to maintain teacher numbers in a bid to deliver on the SNP’s 2007 manifesto promise to “maintain teacher numbers in the face of falling school rolls to cut class sizes”. The current agreement lasts until the end of the financial year – so April 2016.

Is the policy likely to continue?

The government confirmed its commitment to maintaining teacher numbers next year in September, when first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the programme for government.

What happens if councils fail?

There’s a financial penalty. As part of the budget settlement for 2015-16, the Scottish government offered local authorities across the country a share of £51 million if they maintained teacher numbers – with the warning that money would be “clawed back” from authorities that failed to deliver.

How can the government tell?

Delivery of the commitment is measured through the annual pupil and teacher census published every December. Councils have to maintain teacher numbers (measured on a full-time equivalent basis) at or above the level reported in 2014, and maintain the pupil-teacher ratio at or below the level reported in 2014. Before this year, whether or not councils had met the commitment to maintain teacher numbers was measured at a national level. However, after a disagreement on the issue between local authorities’ umbrella body Cosla and ministers, the government has now struck individual agreements with councils.

Have numbers remained the same since 2011?

No. Between 2013 and 2014 the number of teachers dropped by 263, from 51,078 to 50,814, and the pupil-teacher ratio rose slightly from 13.5 to 13.6. However, deputy first minister and finance secretary, John Swinney, decided to “suspend the penalty”. In 2011 the pupil teacher ratio was 13.4 and the total number of teachers was 51,368.

What do the councils say?

They say: “The best people to take decisions on education work in councils, not St Andrews House.” When the SNP came to power it removed ring-fencing, giving councils much more freedom to decide how to spend their budgets. This policy flies in the face of that, they argue, and is ring-fencing by the back door.

Is the policy fair?

Councils, especially those in more rural and remote parts of Scotland, would argue that it’s not. There is a national teacher shortage, and although authorities have to maintain teacher numbers they have no control over teacher supply – that’s the Scottish government’s domain. Education directors are calling for the government to take into account teaching vacancies when it looks at the figures this year. ADES would prefer a national minimum staffing standard to the policy of maintaining teacher numbers. It is a “crude” measure, they say, and means different things in different councils depending on how generous the staffing allocation was when the policy started. The EIS teaching union would also support the introduction of a national staffing standard.

Is there support for maintaining numbers?

Yes. The teaching unions support the policy. They argue that teacher numbers have been “decimated” over the past decade, and without the policy there would not be enough practitioners to ensure a high-quality experience for pupils in all parts of the country. Parent groups also want to see teacher numbers maintained but not at any cost. Councils that have tried to recruit but failed should not be punished, says the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

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