When is a cut not a cut? Fife’s £3 million education ‘underspend’

My letter about Fife Council’s £3 million education cut provoked the ire of Councillor Bryan Poole, the administration’s education portfolio-holder and spokesperson. It was not an edifying exchange on facebook.

I don’t think I am the only member of the public to be baffled by Fife Council’s budgeting. The process by which budget decisions are reached is largely opaque, scrutiny and debate even within the council are very limited and the opportunities for meaningful public participation in the process non-existent. Decisions – whether for cuts, or for capital spending projects, like the shower we have seen in recent weeks, occasioned no doubt by the approaching election, are handed down as faits accomplis.

I cannot pretend to know about or grasp all the intricacies of Fife Council budgeting, but I have had a little more explained to me recently, and my unhappiness about the £3 million “cut” to the education budget remains.

Against many members of the public, Fife SNP and the local teaching union, Cllr Poole and the Labour administration at Fife Council ​maintain that removing £3million from the education budget is not a cut. Well, I suppose that depends on how exactly you define a cut.

The £3 million being taken out of the budget was not actually being spent. For the last 4 or 5 years, Education has reported an underspend in their budget, specifically in the part of the Education Budget allocated to ‘Employment of Teachers’, of around £3 – £3.5 million every year, with £3.8 million projected for 2016-17. This underspend has been the direct result of the national shortage of teachers, which means Fife Council has been unable to fill permanently something like 80-100 vacancies. Each year this underspend has been used to cover overspends in other parts of the budget – in other words, this has been used to balance Fife Council books.

So you might say the current budget which removes this £3 million from the budget is merely rationalising a situation which has existed for years, rather than causing schools to lose something they had last year. Perhaps as a book-keeping exercise this move is unexceptional, and perfectly acceptable; in the wider context of Fife schools, I don’t think it is.

The real issue for me isn’t whether this is a cut or not, but that an annual £3 million “underspend” constitutes a significant loss for schools. That loss is experienced as a lack of permanent teachers to fill vacant posts, and yes, Fife Council is right to point the finger of blame at the Scottish Government for failing to train enough teachers and for policies which hinder recruitment and retention. I do not know enough about the situation to judge whether Fife Council has really done all it can to attract and retain teachers, given that this has been a problem for years, or whether it has taken the least line of resistance, leaving schools to cope as best they can, while pocketing the underspend as a necessary safety net for overspends elsewhere.

And schools have coped because they have had to – employing supply teachers (when they can get them), getting head teachers and depute heads to cover, conflating classes and increasing class sizes or just cutting subjects and the things which a full complement of staff would be able to do. What is clear to staff and parents is that existing staff have had to do more and the children have received less. Fife Council, meanwhile, has received an unexpected bonus of an extra £3 million to balance its books and the opportunity in the last budget to make a cut which no one would experience as a cut because everyone had been living with it for years.

This is not right, and I don’t think it treats teachers, parents or children fairly. That £3 million underspend should have been used to alleviate some of the pressures being felt by teachers and pupils and aggravated by the inability to fill permanent posts. From personal experience I know that the provision of support for children with additional support needs has been cut – it has become increasingly difficult for parents to get their children’s support needs recognised by Fife Council and met by support assistants and other specialist staff. This isn’t just bad for the individual children but impacts across a class when these children may become disruptive and teachers are forced to give them disproportionate attention at the expense of the rest of the class. I have also heard about primary schools struggling to pay for books and even photocopying. I’m sure that the parents protesting against the closure of special speech classes at Mountfleurie Primary would have been able to suggest a use for some of that £3 million underspend, as would the parents across Fife who wanted their local libraries kept open.

The larger point is that there was no debate, no opportunity for public discussion, about how that underspend could be used – not in the year it first occurred, not in any year since and not now when it is effectively being disappeared.

The permanent disappearing of this underspend does have concrete policy consequences it turns out. A press report states:

“Fife Council announced last month it would save £3m in the education budget by reducing current vacancies – around 120 staff – by “redistributing existing staff”.

The decision infuriated teachers’ union EIS which claimed the move would impact mostly on primary teachers and secondary maths and English teachers.

“And the effect of that will be, of course, that there will be fewer classes,” said David Farmer, EIS publicity officer.

He added: “The council claims this will bring some stability and continuity for staff, pupils and school managers but that is something EIS will dispute because we believe what will happen is that the posts of those teachers, that will be to use the council’s words ‘redistributed,’ will not be filled.”

While acknowledging some classes would rise by four or five children, David Ross said a national shortage of teachers meant 2500 children across Fife were being taught by supply teachers.

“That is not a good situation,” he said.

“Last year we spent £3.4 million employing supply teachers so if we can redistribute as many as we can, not only do we give children a permanent teacher, we also reduce our supply teacher bill.”

So children will lose teachers they currently have, albeit supply teachers, and class sizes will rise, but Fife Council insists this will be better for children. The removal of 120 posts means these will not be filled, even when more teachers are trained. No wonder the union is infuriated and no wonder parents have started a petition. Has the Labour administration got so obsessed with playing with figures that it has lost touch with what is actually happening in schools and with the views of teachers and parents?

If this £3 million ‘cut’ is in fact inevitable and justifiable, then Fife Council has a major PR disaster on its hands because it has comprehensively failed to explain it to the public. For that at least, the spokesman for education bears some responsibility.

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