Monday, 20 May 2019

Primary 1 Deferral - Who Decides When A child Starts School?

Earlier this month I brought a motion to Council calling for equity of approach in policy on the school starting date. Currently the ability to defer a child's first year of primary school is something well known to parents whose child is born in January or February - however, children born after the beginning of the school Autumn term are also entitled to defer. This is not widely known and secondly, in Fife, there is a lottery in terms of funding for an additional year of nursery. This is granted automatically for those children born in January and February. Not so for those born from late August until 31st December. The motion I presented sought to change that. This came about following being contacted by a number of parents. The motion was predictably defeated by the SNP-Labour coalition who claimed all is well - tell that to the parents who have had sleepless nights and weeks of stress over an inconsistent and lacking in transparency policy. 
Below is the text of the motion and then the speech. 

The link to my speech at Council can be found here (I speak from 3hrs 30mins) - 

Motion Text

Council notes:
·      Children born in January or February can be deferred automatically at parental request and will not require assessment. These children will be entitled to a further year of free nursery education. 
·      The Give Them Time campaign survey found that whilst 80% of parents were aware of the right to defer for children born in January and February only 19% were aware of the right to defer for those born between September and December. 

Council believes that:
·      Children born from September to December are also entitled to be deferred for a year at parental request and should also receive a funded nursery place for this extra year. This should not require any additional assessment.
·      An additional funded year should be able to be taken at either a Council nursery or a Partner Provider. 

Council therefore instructs officers to prepare a report for consideration by the Education & Children’s Services Committee on the adoption of that policy. 

Council additionally:
·      Asks officers to ensure that information on the right to defer is clearly available both on Fife Direct and in nursery settings (both Council and Partner Providers).



Motion Speech:
GIRFEC, a term we hear often by politicians when talking about education of children in Scotland. Getting It Right For Every Child. Yet, we know that is not always happening – particularly as we have seen recently with P1 SNSA, which thankfully this Chamber voted to withdraw Primary 1 children in Fife from.

Recently it has come to my attention though that whilst the Scottish Government continues to push another flagship policy, this time on increased nursery provision for all 3 and 4 year olds, that all is not well in nursery provision and there is a complete lack of equity for some youngsters in Fife. 

Primary school deferment; the decision not to place a child of less than 5 years into school in the August intake. It is relatively common knowledge and has been for a long time that a child born in the months of January or February can be deferred from starting school. For example, a child born in January 2015 would be 4 years and 8 months when the school term begins this coming August. The parents of this child could, rightly choose to defer. No-one would question and funding for another year at nursery would be automatic. 

However, for the child born in December 2014 who would be 5 years old in December 2019 – around 4 months after the school term begins, their parents can also legally defer them. However, the big difference is nursery funding would no longer be automatic.  Herein is where the difficulties and the lack of equity begin. 

Over the past few weeks I have been contacted by an increasing number of parents who have been sharing their often very stressful experiences in securing this additional funding. 

One parent wrote to me stating that:“When deciding to defer my December born child I was advised by the HT to write a letter outlining the reasons. I wrote to the Education Service in early December and then completed an application form to defer.”

No response was forthcoming to this until February this year when the parent was advised the application was unsuccessful. Fife Council’s own Deferral Guidelines for Parents states that: “A child with a date of birth from September to December will require to be assessed in order to receive a funded nursery place for an extra year. A meeting will be arranged to discuss the case. This will normally take place at the nursery school your child attends. You will be invited along with the Health Visitor and any other relevant professional.” 

In this case that did not happen. There was no meeting.

However, another parent contacted me to tell me that: “No-one at our catchment primary had encountered this before and I could not find the information on Fife Council’s website (which is of no surprise, I will come to that later) and only eventually found the form through the Deferral Support Facebook page. Following completing the form an Educational Psychologist visited the nursery and two weeks later there was a further meeting, this time also with the Head of Infants and the key worker.”

This is quite a different experience to the previous example. What this case did further highlight was that the deferral request form to complete for September to December born children is the same one as the January and February born children – possibly this lack of transparency goes some way to explaining the outcome of a survey conducted by the National Parent Forum of Scotland which found that whilst 80% of parents were aware of the right to defer for children born in January and February only 19% were aware of this same right for children born in September through to December. 

Whilst reading through the various sections of legislation that address school start date in Scotland I discovered a set of guidance produced by the ADES – Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, which looked at “Guidance on Deferrals for Primary School Education”. Within this document it states that: “Deferred entry considerations should be detached from the appraisal of special educational needs. There was no necessary link between the two. Some children were simply ‘not ready’ for primary school. They should not have to prove any kind of educational or psychological deficiency in order to be considered for a deferred pre-school place.” (section 2.4 Sub-Committee)

Yet, the Deferral Request form provided by Fife Council does ask for the reason why. The child not being 5 years old and based on the judgement of the parents is surely enough?

One parent wrote to me stating that at a deferral request meeting there were 10 individuals, including a paediatric doctor, in the room discussing if the request should be granted. Is this what parents’ who are already concerned about how their child will cope if they have to send them to school before they are 5 years old, to be put through? 

Fundamentally, the problem here, is the lack of equity in this policy. As I have said, there is no legal requirement to send any child to school until their 5thbirthday. Neither parents of those September to December born children and quite often, judging by some of the detail provided in correspondence which I have received, nor are nursery and school staff are aware of this either. More worrying though when a deferral is turned down a parent has to make a decision. They can send them to school even if they are convinced they are not ready. Or they can pay for the nursery hours for the additional year. This is all well and good if they can afford. What of those parents who cannot afford nursery costs? There is much talk in this Chamber of equality and a fairer Fife but this policy is immediately disadvantaging children whose parents cannot afford to fund this additional year. That is quite simply wrong.

To exacerbate matters and where once again GIRFEC seems to be completely ignored, is if funding is granted for an additional year of nursery this must be taken in a Fife Council nursery, even if your child is currently in a partner provider. Whilst if funding is declined then the child must be removed from the Council nursery. That is just unacceptable. 

This motion is calling to address this lack of equity and ensure that all children who are not five years old on the date of the term beginning can be deferred for a year and granted additional nursery funding if the parents request it. 

In terms of financial impact there is no “extra cost” as such – the Council will be paying either for that extra year of nursery or a year at primary school. Additionally, whilst we cannot compare ourselves to all other local authorities we can draw on decisions passed. Falkirk Council in September 2018 changed its policy and despite cuts to Council budgets, is able to fund an additional nursery year where requested.

The Scottish Government’s own policy on funding for nursery makes this even more inequitable – a child born from September to December begins nursery in the January and if deferral is refused they will have had 1.5 years of nursery. For a child born in January or February, who we know will receive automatic additional funding, will potentially then receive 2.5 year of nursery funding. How on earth is that judged as fair? 
Finally, the transparency of this information. Well that is in itself no easy task. When I first began to examine this, I went straight to Fife Direct and thought it would be relatively easy to identify the deferral guidelines. It was not and one document entitled Early & Delayed Entry to Primary Schools – which is very useful given the detail it contains on the process for a further year of discretionary nursery funding, is apparently not something issued to parents – so I was told. 

Instead, Fife Direct offers an abbreviated version – which is available once you can find it on the website. It is interesting that in COSLA’s most recent briefing note, under Addressing Concerns, mention is made of the need to ensure that “polices and procedures are freely available to the public” (to be published 1/5/19). 

Information has to be available and transparent. One parent advised me that because her child was in a partner nursery it took several months before a copy of deferral guidance ever appeared. Partner nurseries in Fife have had to make many adjustments to fit with the criteria requested by the Council, this must work both ways and they are readily in possession of all the information on deferral guidance.  The amendment states that Education & Children’s Services should ensure this information is easily accessible – surely it already should be?

I started today with mentioning GIRFEC and I recognise that for the majority of deferral cases that have come before Fife Council the outcomes have been positive and a further year of funding has been granted. However, this has come at the expense of peace of mind for many parents. Some who have had to wait months, some who do not even know where to begin in making the request to defer and some who do not even know it is possible to do so – remember that figure across Scotland for September to December born children – only 19% of parents were aware of this. Secondly, if that request is turned down it results in those who can pay will pay and those who cannot will often have to send their child to school against their better judgement. 

I move the motion. 












Monday, 25 March 2019

Balwearie High School - Cut the school week or cut subject choice?

Having not written on here for a couple of weeks I have a lot to catch up with. However, I am just going to post a short comment on here this evening in response to an article the Fife Free Press is currently running online. I am extremely unhappy about the article and my response to the paper (which I have shared on my Councillor page) is attached. 

Both Balwearie High School and Queen Anne High School are schools I have been following closely as Fife Council's Managing Change exercise is carried out. I am particularly unhappy about plans to close the Business Education Department at QAHS, despite it being over-subscribed, achieving excellent results and having a long-standing teacher and still not receiving satisfactory answers from Fife Council. I am also very concerned about the proposals being put forward by the Headteacher at Balwearie High School - who is left with no option due to draconian budget cuts imposed by the SNP led Administration in Fife and passed on by their masters at Holyrood. 

The link to the article can be found here - https://www.fifetoday.co.uk/news/education/balwearie-high-school-looks-to-cut-school-hours-to-save-cash-1-4895306

I have emailed my comments for this week's publication.

My comment:

Balwearie High School Looks To Cut Hours – A Response

“It is completely disingenuous for Cllr Sinclair to suggest these cuts were accepted by all political groups. The Conservative group at Fife Council put forward a set of alternative budget proposals and I spoke out vociferously against these cuts at the Budget meeting in February.”

“It is wrong to suggest that cutting 50 minutes of registration each week is somehow a positive move. The registration period is important for addressing any pastoral and academic concerns which can then be passed to the guidance teacher. Whilst it is true that there is no standardisation of the school week, what is now being proposed is as a direct result of draconian cuts to the education budget in Fife. This is as a result of Scottish Government austerity on councils up and down the country.”

“For a government that claims education is its number one priority they have a strange way of showing it; either a cut in subject choice or a cut to the school week.”

“Mr McNeil, like other headteachers in Fife, is being faced with a very difficult decision and one that does not benefit pupils. It is high time this SNP-Labour coalition at Fife Council went back to the Scottish Government and demanded more money to properly fund schools and education. 

Cllr Kathleen Leslie
Fife Conservatives Education Spokesperson 






Monday, 25 February 2019

Fife Council Budget - Capital Fund

Last week the second part of Budget Day was the Capital Funding proposals as set out by the Administration. We put forward an amendment to the motion whereby we requested that it was put to the Scrutiny Committee to be, yes you guessed it, further scrutinised.

Predictably the SNP-Labour coalition did not want further scrutiny and voted for the motion. The Capital Fund is effectively a 10 year plan and is where big money is spent on key projects such as school buildings, traffic management, libraries, museums, refurbishments of Council buildings, property maintenance and leisure facilities. However, whilst it deals with large sums of money we wanted more scrutiny as there just isn't the detail on the papers issued. Secondly, whilst huge numbers of money - such as £117million for the the school estate in West Fife, appear the detail often tells quite a different story when it comes to timescales and what and what not will get done.

I commented on the school estate (school buildings - renewals, replacements and extensions) as I am particularly concerned that despite grand promises from the SNP-Labour Administration, there is unlikely to be any new high schools in West Fife in the coming years. The money simply isn't there. 

Here is what I said. 

Provost,

Unsurprisingly I have noted over the past few days a sudden flurry of social media activity around some groups in the Dunfermline and West Fife area as the Administration's Capital Fund proposals for the school estate were released. Predictably, there was a positive spin put on this by some members in this Chamber. However, it didn’t really take too long to look at the spreadsheet and realise that despite the puffed-up figure of £117m being proclaimed that there was a fair bit of smoke and mirrors. 

Dunfermline and West Fife high schools, the subject of much virtue-signalling during election campaigns in Dunfermline. In 2017 both Labour and the SNP claimed in their election literature that if you voted for them you would get new high schools in Dunfermline. Given the long-running blame game in the years prior to the Council election between the 2 parties, it must have seemed like a win win to the people of Dunfermline and West Fife when the 2 former rivals established their cosy coalition. Now there would be no more bickering and blame. Just new high schools and pretty much immediately. 

Inverkeithing, Woodmill & St Columba’s are now all listed as both Condition and Suitability C. Woodmill’s 2 upper floors have no accessible toilets and the medical room is completely inaccessible to anyone in a wheelchair. Inverkeithing cannot go above 90% capacity due to issues with encapsulated asbestos and only 2 weeks ago it had to close due to water supply issues. Which I noted the current MP stated means “the time to act is now” to have a replacement built. It’s a shame she didn’t do something about it when she was a councillor.  I also note that Cllr Ross has stated in today's Dunfermline Press that "we've delayed plans for these new schools over the past few years", indeed you have!

Are these schools really the environment the young people of Fife should be taught in?

 Let us though look at the data here. In another bumper packed set of papers the November Education & Children’s Services Committee told us that to get the 3 replacement schools in Dunfermline, the soon to be required extensions on DHS and QAHS and Glenwood and Glenrothes replaced, the grand total would be £226m.

 And what of Glenrothes and Glenwood. Well and truly punted into the long-grass. 2 schools, both in Condition C and yet the first pennies will not be available until far off in 2025. Maybe new high schools are not considered to be a deal maker in elections in Glenrothes.

“There is £50million in the Captial Plan” – yes, that is what we keep getting told. We have been reminded of this so, so often. That just leaves a gap of £176m for the rest. However, no-one should have felt disheartened as there was also the announcement that the SNP Government would be sinking £7billion into “innovative projects”. 

What wasn’t included was that there is no further Scottish Government funding projects for school buildings across Scotland during the remainder of this Parliament. 

So, we have this £117m for West Fife. What has unfortunately been missed out is that the £117m is a grand total of Capital funding on the school estate for West Fife secondary schools until 2029. 

I find it quite incredible that given all the fan-fair about this money that in 2020-2021 there will be £1.781m available which will increase to a further £8.883m the following year, still just not quite enough to build one new high school. However, in election year £19.2m is pledged! Now that will make for a great pre-election story. Sadly though, it still will not be enough. The big numbers conveniently do not begin until 2023-2024. By which time of course Ruth Davidson will be in Bute House and there will actually be a Scottish Government that works for the people of Scotland. 

Therefore by 2029, almost 2 decades after promises began to be made by one time SNP and Labour rivals, there just might be 3 new high schools in Dunfermline and West Fife.
  
I was also intrigued to note that money will become available in 2021 for an extension to Viewforth.
Only just opened in 2016 and an extension is going to be needed. Talk about poor planning on the part of the previous Administration. Did no-one look at the fact the town was growing and quite possibly consider that would lead to a need for increased capacity? No, so instead money will now have to be found to extend a school that has only been open for three years!   

This Capital Funding plan for the school estate is a disgrace. It is a further set of broken promises. 

As I pointed out to a colleague a few days ago – elections in Dunfermline have been won and lost on the issue of schools. In 2 years we have Holyrood elections, new high schools or the lack of them will be high on the agenda. I think the electorate are beginning to see both SNP and Labour empty words on new high schools, I wonder where that will leave them both in 2021…

This plan needs more scrutiny. Therefore, I support the Amendment. 

Thank you.








Friday, 22 February 2019

Fife Council Budget - Revenue

Yesterday Fife Councillors set the budget for the year. This saw a 3% increase on the Council Tax and cuts across other vital services. This budget was voted for by the SNP-Labour Coalition. The Conservative group put up an amendment looking at some ways to outsource as a means to reduce the deficit and protect vital services. We were however, not allowed to provide figures on our outsourcing proposals which made the whole process very frustrating. We believe though that as the Council is already outsourcing around 88% of its care home provision (which works), then there is no reason why other smaller services should not also be looked at. Unfortunately, due to punitive cuts by the SNP Government, despite the Block Grant from the UK Government rising by 1.8%, local authorities are facing very difficult choices. 

Scotland is now the highest taxed part of the UK and with the SNP Government passing a Holyrood budget that could see workplace parking charges become a reality, this is very worrying for hardworking people in Scotland. It also leaves little incentive for people to be attracted here to settle and work. 

We have had 12 years now of mismanagement of the Scottish economy by the SNP and huge cuts to local authorities are very concerning. I was particularly concerned about implications of a £1.489m cut to Education in Fife. Yesterday I spoke out against this at the Council meeting. Below is the text of what I said (it can also be found on the link I shared on my Councillor Facebook page yesterday). I also spoke at Council on the need for further scrutiny of the Capital Fund and will post that on here later today. 

_____

Provost,

Following cuts to last year’s Education budget I was surprised and shocked to see that this SNP-Labour coalition, despite petitions from teaching staff, parents and the Unions, had decided to impose further aggressive and damaging cuts, particularly, to secondary schools. This cut will amount to £750k over the course of a year. You can dress it up in any terms you like but this sort of “efficiency” will impact and it will impact negatively. 

Across the country local authorities are facing damaging cuts all as a result of this SNP Government’s complete mismanagement of the economy over the past 11 years. Despite a 1.8% rise in the Block Grant, we are facing more punitive cuts to vital services such as health and education. 

Here in Fife we are seeing the harsh reality of this mismanagement by a government that has been fixated on one issue and one issue only.

The total cut to the Education budget sits at £1.489m over the next year, once we factor in this most awful additional cut to the vital supply teacher budget, which given the number of teachers who have been absent over the past 12 months due to stress, makes this attack on a dwindling budget, incomprehensible. 

In December, I attended an EIS public meeting, held here in Glenrothes, it was a shame that none of the joint Administration councillors were able to attend and listen to the very real concerns being expressed by teaching staff, parents and also some pupils. Around the same time a joint statement was issued by eight Parent Councils from Fife secondary schools such were the major concerns about any further cuts to school budgets. The key worries were cuts to staffing that would in turn lead to further limitations being placed on choice within the curriculum in the senior phase. 

For example Queen Anne High School has had a long established and regularly over-subscribed Business Education Department. However, it was early on earmarked for closure which seems incredible given it currently offers a senior phase curriculum that includes Business Management, Administration, Travel & Tourism and Financial Services at both National and Higher. Now this budget cut the department will see the PT post removed and the BGE phase being placed in the curriculum area of Woodwork and Engineering Science. What though of the senior phase? Well we know the course choices form tells pupils they are going to College to study these subjects. It is just rather inconvenient that when I contacted Fife College I was advised that they do not have National 5 & Higher Business Administration and Business Management on their timetabled classes for the Autumn term and as we now know they won’t be sending college staff into school to teach these subjects. Therefore, we have an impending department closure and no answer if pupils will even be able to take up their subject choices, which incidentally will have a knock-on effect when it comes to applying for university. 

Another major concern is the removal of two PT Guidance posts from Balwearie. It is difficult to put into words the importance of having sufficient Guidance staff in school. Whilst one part of the role is to work with pupils on curricular and career guidance the other part is to create a link, that lasts throughout a pupil’s time in school, whereby they are assured of confidential personal and emotional support. In short, they offer a space of continuity where trust can be built. The concept of any high school having to cut vital Guidance posts when mental health issues and stress amongst young people continues to increase, is deeply worrying and for this Administration to be signing off on such cuts to education they really need to think about the impact of these on every single young person. This is not getting it right for every child. Far from it. 

I have met and spoken with a number of HTs and teachers over the past number of months and the message that kept coming back was – we cannot take another cut. We have already cut right back. Removing more promoted posts and merging departments into a single faculty may look great on paper but the reality is it leads to subject limitations on pupils and as one HT pointed out – we thought we had moved away from this idea of pushing kids towards subject areas that do not interest and engage them. The outcome of these cuts means where a pupil is keen to select a range of practical subjects they will be unable to as class sizes have to be smaller. This is not getting it right for every child. This is storing up future problems.

The second part to this cut is what it will do to teaching staff. At a time where morale is already at rock bottom among teachers, with around 10% of probationers leaving the profession and around 40% considering quitting, another attack on education is not what is needed. It is worthwhile remembering that a full-time teacher, whether in the classroom or an HT, is contracted to 35 hrs per week. Yet a recent survey by the EIS found that 28.9% do between 5 & 7 extra hours per week and 34.9% more than 8 extra hours per week with 15% saying they feel stressed all the time. The solution here in Fife by this SNP-Labour coalition appears to be to ensure that workload increases, stress increases, and promotion opportunities are limited. 

I would remind colleagues that this SNP Government claims “education is its number one priority”, well after the constitutional obsession that is, yet we have here a budget today that says exactly the opposite. Whilst I am in no doubt that the coalition members will vote en masse to pass it, I would suggest that the SNP stops its blame Westminster game and starts properly funding local authorities. Whilst the Labour group seriously considers that in supporting this terrible offering we have here that they are doing nothing more than lending their support to the SNP Government and no longer appear to be the party that once had a half decent record on education here in Fife. 

I support the Amendment. 





Tuesday, 5 February 2019

School Budgets - Transparency and Accountability

This past week has been fairly busy. I have been out and about in the Ward catching up with residents, including getting feedback on the poorly advertised changes to bin calendars over the Christmas period. I have also been to a number of meetings including the first Invertiel TRA of the year - one of my favourite meetings. An informative Q&A session was held with the Scouts in Burntisland and finally there is a resolution to the long-running saga of the fence around the viaduct. All that must wait for another post though. 

The Scottish Government set its budget last week, relying on the support of the Greens. It's a budget to hammer all hardworking Scots. Council tax increases, proposed parking charges at work and cuts to local authorities. The SNP at Holyrood may claim to be funding local authorities sufficiently but this is absolute nonsense, we have so much ring-fenced money now (read - top-down centralisation) that local authorities are having to cut back and cut back. If there is any austerity in Scotland it is the making of this SNP government. 

What I have continued to do is speak out against proposed draconian cuts to Education in Fife. This SNP-Labour coalition need to be doing a lot more to protect vital services within education and petition their leaders at Holyrood for more funding (what is interesting is that Labour at Holyrood criticises the cuts being made and rightly so. However, in Fife they are in a cosy coalition with the SNP and this means an almost complete silence on criticising them - the price of being a junior partner in a coalition?). The threatened closure of the Business Education Department at Queen Anne in Dunfermline remains an ongoing concern - which I have outlined in the first letter below. The second one refers to the motion to the Education & Children's Services Committee which called for a report to be made available - this of course was voted down by the SNP-Labour councillors who continue to work closely together. See the link to my earlier post on this - http://www.kathleenleslie.co.uk/2019/01/school-budgets-what-level-of.html

Here is what I had to say.



“There will be no negative impact on teachers”, these were the words Fife Council’s Education Directorate used when Cllr Kathleen Leslie asked about the upcoming dissolution of the Business Education Department at Queen Anne High School.

“At the Education & Children’s Services Committee last week I enquired as to what moving a subject, currently taught in school, to college would mean. I was told this would not have a negative impact on teaching staff. However, I am far from convinced about this” said Conservatives Education Spokesperson, Cllr Leslie.

“Currently pupils can select both Admin and Business at Higher, with the new course choices they can only choose one of these. Additionally, contact time each week will be cut by two periods. Combine this with travelling time to and from the college and you can see that subject choice across the curriculum is going to be limited.”

“Business at Queen Anne High School is a regularly oversubscribed subject at all stages and has a long-standing teacher. However, what is being proposed under the Managing Change exercise will see this teaching post go and pupils see a reduction in their options. I find this simply astounding when Business Education subjects are vital to the economic prosperity of the country. I have been contacted by pupils who sent me the course choices form and are understandably very concerned about what these changes will mean to them.”

“What exactly are the staffing arrangements at Fife College? Does it have permanent staff in place so there is a long-term guarantee for these subjects to run? What happens to pupils who want to study more than one Business course at Higher? Until now I have had absolutely no satisfactory answers from Fife Council’s Education Directorate. I have also asked about the financial cost when moving courses to the college, as of yet I have had no response.”

“Originally this cut was proposed as part of a savings package but now it seems that despite having an £80,000 reduction in its staffing budget Queen Anne’s budget this upcoming year will be up £151,000 with a predicted underspend of £139,000. Therefore, why on earth is the school cutting a department that is both popular and running subjects that open up opportunities for young people?”

“Yes, there should be more collaboration with the college when appropriate but this must not be at the expense of choices for pupils or cutting teaching jobs.”




Dear Sir 

At last week’s Education & Children’s Services Committee Cllr Dave Dempsey and I put forward a motion calling for greater transparency and scrutiny of secondary school budgets. This was as a result of savings proposals voted through last year that have seen an overall cut of 1.5% to school budgets, which in some cases will lead to staffing cuts and a potential shortening of the school week. 

Additionally, through a series of email correspondence with Council officers it transpired that “a headteacher through the Parent Council should agree the school budget spend with parents on an annual basis”. Something that through further investigation we know definitely does not happen across the board. Indeed, some parents have stated this has never come up at Parent Council meetings. Quite possibly because headteachers have not always, through no fault of their own, been aware of the requirement to do this. 

In light of these cuts and the ongoing concerns raised by parents and teaching staff as to the implications of a proposed further round of savings, we called for a report to come to the Education & Children’s Services Committee so that this could be discussed in a public forum. However, the SNP and Labour councillors on the Committee voted this down and instead presented an amendment that stated that they “noted the contents of a briefing paper” and that “members should contact officers for information as requested”. Therefore, no public report to Committee, and no opportunity for concerned parents and teachers to attend the Committee and hear any debate and discussion.

Whilst the SNP in Fife are doing as their Holyrood colleagues and going all out to avoid any scrutiny, it is surprising to see Labour acquiesce and also vote down transparency on an issue that affects so many people across the local authority. It seems that Labour continues in their role of junior partner in this coalition and would rather parents remain the dark as to how secondary school budgets and consequential changes will ultimately affect the young people of Fife. 


Yours


Tuesday, 29 January 2019

School Budgets - What Level of Transparency?

Last week the Education & Children's Services Committee for the first time in 2019. The agenda was a busy one and rather than discuss the full contents in this one post I will talk about a couple of the others later.

Secondary school budgets and the setting of them and levels of transparency have dominated quite a bit of time over the past few months. The very real impact of cuts to schools and pupils is becoming very concerning. Last year's budget saw a cut of around 1.5% to the overall secondary school budget - leading to cuts to staffing and now the potential shortening of the school week in some high schools.

Understandably this has resulted in much concern from parents as to the implications of these cuts. I went to a meeting held by Fife EIS in December of last year which was attended by both teaching staff and parents - although, notably no SNP or Labour Councillors (the Administration at Fife Council) where these very real worries about what cuts to teachers such as guidance staff and promoted positions will mean? It leaves questions about what incentives there are for teachers to relocate to Fife (the local authority having struggled to fill vacant posts over the past 3 years) and what impact in the long-term this will have on pupils. Proposed cuts such as Business Education at Queen Anne High School will mean the department will go and courses will apparently be offered at the local college. Although, from initial enquiries this will mean a reduction in the amount of lessons on offer and a reduction in the number of Business subjects that it will be possible to take at Higher. None of it appears clear at this stage.

Additionally, we discovered about a month ago that when it comes to the decision-making process on where the money from the school budget goes and who the headteacher is accountable to, there was further opaqueness and confusion. The Directorate advised that: "A headteacher, through the Parent Council should agree the school budget spend with parents on an annual basis". This line is quite astonishing as it was something that councillors were clearly not aware of and even worse - when speaking to Parent Council representatives few were even aware of this. Not all headteachers themselves would even have been aware of this or how this was to be agreed and when. One long-standing councillor remarked that despite attending these meetings for years the topic of spending the school budget had never come up! 

As result of all of this the Conservative group decided to put up a motion to the Education & Children's Services Committee last week to address these concerns. The motion stated: 

  1. Motion
    “Committee
• NotesParental concerns around budget and other consequential changes in
Fife’s secondary schools.
A degree of confusion around these changes.
That schools have been asked to explore changes consequent on a budget decision that the Council has not yet made and may not make.

Accordingly asks that a report be presented to the next meeting of this committee:-
Detailing, in total and for each secondary school
  •   The overall DSM budgets and, where available, actual DSM spends for 2016-17, 2018-19 and any anticipated figures for 2019-20 which have been given to schools for planning purposes
  •   The changes which schools have made or propose to make as a consequence of budget changes made in February, 2018 and/or anticipated for February, 2019
Describing the process for the approval and monitoring of the DSM budget in each school, including the proposed role of Parent Councils and elected members”

Proposed by: 
Councillor Dave Dempsey 
Seconded by:
Councillor Kathleen Leslie

This was a motion that was technical in nature rather than political. However, clearly calling for a report which would have allowed plenty of debate and discussion along with scrutiny in a public forum was just not palatable. Predictably the SNP and Labour councillors voted it down. Instead they tabled a weak worded amendment that only sought to ensure the discussion was kept well away from the public realm. It read:

Amendment
Councillor Fay Sinclair moved, seconded by Councillor Linda Erskine, to note the contents of the briefing paper which had been circulated on the managing change exercise last week and that members should contact officers for information such as requested in the motion at any point.

Therefore, said very little of any substance.

Following this outcome a press release has been issued by Cllr Dempsey and I. Here is the text:

What are Fife Labour & SNP Trying to Hide?
That’s the question posed by the Conservatives on Fife Council after the SNP/Labour Administration voted down a proposal for a report on the Devolved School Management Budgets of Fife’s Secondaries.
Group Leader, Cllr Dave Dempsey said “Last February, the Council voted through a cut of about 1.5% in the overall secondary school budget. That was notionally a cut in staffing, though Headteachers have considerable freedom to spend a school’s allocation as they think best.
“When the effect on individual schools trickled out, parents at some were up in arms. It turned out that the cut had been combined with changes in the distribution, so that some schools had been hit by a cut twice as big or more than their proportionate share, whereas others had seen a budget increase.
“Moreover, we found that schools were looking to cut staff numbers to cover this year’s change plus a further cut that councillors may or may not approve next month. SNP & Labour know this is happening. What does that say about their budget plans?
“To add to the confusion, it turns out that even schools with budget cuts can have more to spend this year than last, due largely to the £1.74m that they carried forward from the previous year’s underspends. There’s such a shortage of teachers that our schools can’t use up their budgets. That’s not new and it’s predicted to continue. Eleven of the eighteen schools are predicted to underspend this school year. Why then are they looking to cut posts so savagely?
“This information prompted a broader question – who agrees a school’s budget and to whom is the Headteacher accountable for how it’s spent. This isn’t a trivial question. The biggest schools have budgets in millions. The answer included one astonishing line – ‘A Headteacher, through the Parent Council should agree the school budget spend with parents on an annual basis’.
“If this happens at all then those schools are the exceptions. In most parent Councils, the budget is scarcely discussed, let alone agreed. Are Parent Councils even aware?
“In an attempt to ensure that councillors understand and can discuss this hugely important topic, we called for a report to the Education Committee. Labour and the SNP combined to reject that. Apparently, individual councillors should ask questions out of public view. That would mean that no-one would know what anyone else was asking, the public would have no visibility whatsoever and the benefit that comes from a round table discussion would be lost.
“it comes as no surprise that the SNP acted as they did. Since the regained a share of power in May 2017, they’ve worked to suppress the scrutiny role of councillors. What’s surprising and more than a little sad is Labour’s willingness to go along with that. They did much between 2012 and 2017 to promote the scrutiny process. Now they’ve turned their backs on it. Why?

“The Conservative Group will continue to ask searching questions and to keep the public informed. That won’t be as quick or effective as it could have been but, whatever the Administration parties want hidden, we’ll find it sooner or later”.
Conservative Education Spokesperson, Cllr Kathleen Leslie added “"In December 2017 the Conservatives proposed a motion to Council on new high schools in Dunfermline. I was rebutted and told to take it to Committee. Now when we bring a motion to Committee it is watered down by an amendment that seeks to avoid discussion and scrutiny. This appears to be symptomatic of the SNP-Labour Administration. This year's savings proposals are going to hit some schools hard. We know that promoted posts are to go, departments such as Business Education are to be closed and the school week will be shortened in some schools. This all needs to be discussed transparently in the open forum of the Education & Children's Services Committee. Not on an ad hoc basis where it will bypass the public. What exactly has the Administration got to hide?"











Monday, 17 December 2018

SNSA - Fife Council Votes To Withdraw

Thursday's full Council meeting saw Fife vote to withdraw from P1 SNSA. After a process that saw a vote to withdraw back in October, which was then overturned at the Education & Children's Services Committee then following a call-in to the Scrutiny Committee by my colleague Cllr Richard Watt we got to last Thursday. 

Going through the debate again and questions being asked of lead officers who attended the Council meeting a vote was held. Tabled by the Labour group and agreed by the rest of us, with the exception of the SNP, Fife Council vote to withdraw the testing of Primary 1 children using this method of assessment.

I was nominated by Cllr Watt to speak to the call-in item two weeks ago at the Scrutiny Committee where I outlined why I believed these assessments are not appropriate for Primary 1 pupils and why I believe it is possible for the local authority to withdraw. The link to what I said at Scrutiny can be found here - http://www.kathleenleslie.co.uk/2018/12/p1-snsa-scrutiny-committee.html

Below is the text of what I said on Thursday followed by some links following the vote. I absolutely believe this was the correct decision. The more that I researched this the more convinced I have become that no Primary 1 pupil should be sitting a numeracy assessment of 32 minutes and a literacy assessment of 44 minutes. This goes against the philosophy of Curriculum for Excellence and is not conducive to the learning of such a young child. 

Speech to Council:

SNSA

Today, for the fourth time I am speaking out against P1 SNSA. Having spent a considerable of time these past couple of months reading the evidence, which continues to grow, as to why these assessments are completely unsuitable, educationally flawed and potentially damaging to the well-being of Primary 1 children, I am yet further persuaded that we must halt SNSA for P1 now. 

There are two parts to what I will say today. The first being the case against SNSA for P1 and the second why I believe Fife Council can withdraw from these assessments. 

Play Scotland has stated that it is “tests of opportunities, exploration and everyday adventures” that matter not academic tests in Primary 1. One of the earliest documents produced for the Early Years was Building the Curriculum 2 which stated “A key message is that approaches to fostering learning need to be flexible to take account of the needs of the child, and will change as children develop”[2]. Unfortunately, these assessments are not flexible and they take up time where tests of opportunities and exploration could be taking place instead. Even worse, feedback from teachers in Fife released under the FOI have cited that alignment with Experiences & Outcomes and the benchmarks for P1 are difficult to see and that “assessments are narrow and do not reflect the principles of CfE”.

Very explicit examples of concerns about SNSA here in Fife are within the 700 pages of the FOI request. I would urge that you look at it. 

Whilst claims of distressed children have been dismissed by more than one councillor I would direct them to the Scottish Government’s own SNSA User Review which notes at paragraph 30: “Some teachers reported that children found the assessments upsetting.” 

Is it any wonder? On the Scottish Government’s own User Review, the average time for the assessments are 32 mins for numeracy and 44 mins for literacy. How are these administered in a busy classroom of 30 P1 children? In Fife, despite claims of no assessment windows, the feedback is clear “tests carried out en masse” and “The Council set out the timings” continuing “It was decided by management with minimum notice given to staff”. “All pupils have to complete them in May regardless of readiness” – that confirms what the Scottish Government’s User Review states – that 16,000 assessments were taken in one day in May across the country. Others commented the impact on learning and teaching with a SFL teacher having to take groups of children to do the assessments. 

The amendment passed in this Chamber in October requested a report be brought to the Education & Children’s Services Committee outlining if withdrawal from the assessments in P1 was possible. A report was duly presented, containing, I might add, a fair bit of content that was completely irrelevant to the question being asked. We were presented with “positive” and “less positive” takes on the assessments, along with how many children had sat the assessment and how many had been withdrawn – 1 child, but that may be because a survey carried out by Connect found that 70% of parents had no idea their child was sitting an SNSA.

Is it possible? There is nothing in the report to suggest it is not possible. Having sought legal advice, the Directorate notes there are two key points to consider. The first is that there is “there are no specific regulations enacted or statutory guidance issued imposing a legal duty to carry out P1 SNSA.” Instead it was “anticipated that education authorities would therefore adopt the assessment scheme without the need for regulations imposing these”. That of course would require an amendment to the Education Act as the Education Secretary in his missive to local authorities of 4thSeptember provides advice that “SNSAs, in common with virtually all aspects of the Scottish curriculum and its delivery, are not provided for in legislation. This means that they cannot be seen as compulsory”. 

The report further states that the Council would have to demonstrate that it had evidence that such “withdrawal was a reasonable and proportionate step” and also “that it had alternative means of assessing the children it is obliged to educate.” 

The Directorate’s own response notes that P1 “SNSA appears to be the least strong and effective of all the year groups at which SNSA is undertaken”. It also states that “a significant number of schools remain to be convinced of the immediate advantages of using SNSA at P1”.  Leading to the question that does any of this constitute a need to withdraw or is it about identified areas for improvement?

What is this improvement? The Scottish Government has made much of the fact that around one third of questions will be replaced – an improvement? Possibly, but that was already in the pipeline long before the User Review so they knew something was not working. Secondly, the idea of replacing “problematic” questions, or what could be described as teething problems could be argued as a case to continue if it weren’t for the fact that thousands of these assessment questions were already carried out with children prior to SNSA going live. 

The User Review also suggests there could be better ways of “incorporating the SNSA into the teaching”. Thereby, inferring there must be something wrong with the current implementation by class teachers. 

Does Fife have an alternative means of assessing the children it is obliged to educate? Yes, it does. A tried and tested method which not only assessed literacy and numeracy as SNSA does but which looked at cognitive, physical and emotional development in a child in P1, these tests were also far shorter. 

The report claims that the new assessment will produce potentially highly valuable information that will accord with national standards. However, it is difficult to feel at all convinced by this claim when Scotland’s largest teaching union states that at best they assess between 5% and 10% of the skill set covered in P1. The tests are being carried out in the most part near the end of the year by which time class teachers will have used numerous other assessment methods and therefore forms no baseline. 

That is not GIRFEC and it is not what the play-based learning philosophy of Curriculum for Excellence was ever supposed to be about. 

These assessments by their very name “standardised” and “national” indicate they are just a huge data gathering exercise by the Scottish Government which puts both teachers and pupils under pressure. Pressure that no 5 year-old, should be facing. I support the motion. 

______

Media Coverage






 The Scotsman 


 Herald Scotland


  
The Telegraph
 




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