Friday, 14 September 2018

Budget Savings - School Cuts - Number One Priority?

Over the past number of weeks increasing concerns have been voiced by staff, parents and some Councillors about the impact of draconian cuts to high school budgets in Fife. 

See my earlier posts: 


Of 18 high schools in Fife, 12 are facing cuts to their budgets with further cuts being likely next year. Let us keep in mind that this is all whilst the SNP Government at Holyrood continues to parrot its line of education being its "number one priority" - all beginning to look rather hollow now. Figures released this week show only 7% of schools make their performance information available to parents - only 6 in Scotland fully meet the requirements on providing curriculum and attainment data. This is not good enough.

More concerning is that the number of exam passes has fallen at the fastest rate since records began. Yet we continue to be assured by this SNP Government that all is good in education. Cuts to secondary school budgets in Fife are going to hit and they are going to hit hard. Cuts mean the possibility of departments closing, a reduction in practical subjects, reduction in subject choice and ongoing uncertainty for teachers, headteachers and most importantly, pupils. 

In response to cuts to the high school in my Ward, Balwearie High School, I wrote the following letter for the local paper. This issue needs to be continued to be pushed. Fife Council's SNP-Labour Administration passed this budget with little or no information that indicated this would be the impact on schools. The blame lies firmly at the door of the SNP at Holyrood who are sitting on a £500million underspend, thus starving local authorities of much needed cash. Labour in Fife though appears to be scared to tackle this, sits silently and instead leave criticism to their MSPs at Holyrood. Very disappointing for a party which clearly has had a good track record in the past with education in Fife. 

Further scrutiny is required and more questions need to be asked. This simply is not good enough. Every week I receive emails from concerned parents (and the occasional) teacher about upcoming cuts - people are concerned and rightly so. 

The SNP have tried to talk up the Pupil Equity Fund (PEF) as the great saviour brought in by their Government at Holyrood as a way to offset these cuts. This is complete nonsense, PEF addresses a different need and targets specific groups and is based on free school meal ratios - it does not provide money for permanent teaching staff - ultimately schools need teachers and teachers who can teach across the curriculum. No fancy project will eliminate the attainment gap unless you have the staff and subjects there for pupils to realise their full potential. 

At this stage I am awaiting a response from the Education & Children's Services Directorate on the formula applied to reach the budget savings in high schools in Fife. 

Here is what I wrote to the press this week:

Dear Sir 

Concerns raised by Balwearie High School parents over Fife Council’s round of budget cuts to education are extremely alarming (FFP 6/9/18). Balwearie is one of 12 high schools to see a chunk cut from its annual budget. These cuts amount to £265,167 for the school over one year and the possibility of an additional £80,000 cut the following year. 

In real terms this could see the reduction in promoted posts and the merging of faculties. Even more concerning is the possibility of a redesigned curriculum that will feature an increase in class sizes due to cuts to practical subjects and a reduction in subject choice. Other high schools such as Madras, Bell Baxter and Queen Anne are facing similar draconian savings.

When I have previously enquired about the savings proposals I have been assured that due to money coming directly from the Scottish Government in the form of Pupil Equity Funding (PEF) that these savings will be balanced out. What absolute misleading nonsense. PEF is in place to target and close the attainment gap but is not an infinite resource and it does not buy in permanent teachers. What will close the attainment gap is having enough teachers and enough subject choices to give all pupils the ability to realise their potential. 

Fife Council is having to cut almost £2.3 million from its education budget over the next two years. This is of course whilst the SNP Government at Holyrood sat on a £500 million underspend last year. If education really is the “number one priority” of this Scottish Government then it is about time local authorities were provided with sufficient funding to stop all cuts to education now. 

Yours






Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Single-Use Plastics Further Update - Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I wrote here expressing my astonishment at a swipe from a Labour Councillor about the motion raised by Cllr Darren Watt and myself to eliminate single-use plastics from Fife Council. 

Links : 

The councillor who did this claimed that initial moves to eliminate single-use plastics had nothing to do with the motion by Cllr Watt and I and that we were claiming success that was not ours to claim. Last week I responded to this in the Fife Free Press (see below). 

As I have reiterated time and time and time again - the elimination of single-use plastics is something that we ALL must be working towards. I have spoken out on this in Council, at Community Council meetings, at school parent council meetings, in the media and on social media. I am a long time environmentalist and am frequently horrified by the amount of plastic packaging I find on products in supermarkets, at the amount of single-use plastics I see thrown into landfill bins, the littering of plastics along our coastlines and most of all - the absolutely horrendous impact on marine life as a result of the discarding of these products. I will continue to work towards a single-use plastic free environment. 

All of the above is why I was so outraged at the suggestion being made that somehow I was not so committed to this and had voted down a motion to eliminate single-use plastics. I most certainly did not. 

Here is my response:

Dear Sir 

I was very surprised at Cllr Langlands feelings of being “appalled at the inference” that somehow myself and Cllr Darren Watt were responsible for Fife Council finally addressing the need to phase out single-use plastics (FFP 30/8/18). 

The motion to begin the process of eliminating single-use plastics was first tabled by Cllr Watt and I in March as we had been dismayed to see the array of plastic coffee cups, water cups, cutlery and lunch boxes that are used in Fife House and do not always end up being recycled – in part due to these being mixed materials which are notoriously difficult to recycle. Until our motion was brought forward we had seen no evidence at Committee level of the need to urgently address this as a local authority. 

The motion led to impassioned debate in the Council Chamber, where colleagues from all parties, agreed the issue did need to be addressed. What though followed is far removed from Cllr Langlands understanding of it.  He states that the Conservatives did not vote for the SNP-Labour Administration motion, which is indeed correct. That is because there was no Administration motion to vote for. An amendment was predictably produced by the SNP and Labour which they voted for whilst we voted for the original motion. 

What he does not seem to be aware of is that Cllr Watt and I spoke with his SNP colleague prior to the Council meeting and offered to attach our motion to their amendment. This was refused. Our approach was a pragmatic one, begin with the smaller items and then escalate the process – which the Environment Committee has now voted to do. 

Cllr Langlands states that we are not members of the Environment Committee, this is correct. However, as he well knows this does not mean we cannot speak out on this topic. Unlike of course Cllr Langlands, who maintained a complete silence in the Council Chamber in March when the elimination of single-use plastics was first debated. 

I though, will continue to speak out until I see that everything that can done has been done for us all to reduce and eliminate single-use plastics which are causing environmental catastrophe globally. 

Yours





Thursday, 30 August 2018

Single-Use Plastics - Further Update

This post is a specific response to comments in the letters section of this week's Fife Free Press 
**In response to misleading comments in this week's Fife Free Press by a councillor on the ridding of single-use plastics from Fife Council: 
In March of this year Cllr Darren Watt and I brought a motion to Council, the text read:

"Council recognises the devastating impact plastic pollution is having on our environment and the escalating costs of recycling such materials. Council acknowledges we must lead by examples, step up our own efforts and encourage others to follow suit.
Fife Council will begin by transitioning away from single-use plastics commencing at Fife House and Rothesay House, Glenrothes." 


Both myself and Cllr Watt spoke of the devastating impact that single-use plastics are having on our environment, in particular to marine life. We both emphasised that in line with other public bodies, restaurants, schools and businesses up and down the country, there should be a gradual transition away - our belief was to begin this process at the two main Council buildings in Fife.
Disappointingly (but unsurprisingly) the SNP-Labour coalition produced an amendment and voted down our motion. We had hoped to gain cross-party support but their unlikely alliance instead did not accept our proposal and instead comments were made about jobs would be lost and other dramatic remarks.

However, we were very encouraged to discover that the Environment Committee took on board what we had said and a recommendation was moved for Council to begin this process, looking at procurement, the places where it may not be so easy to be rid of single-use plastics and a more sensible approach in that products such as plastic cups could be gradually eliminated. Ultimately this move came about due to the motion to Council in March - myself and Darren brought the issue to the attention of members, took a pragmatic approach which addressed both the urgency to act but the understanding that this would be a steady transition.
Imagine my surprise then when I opened this week's Fife Free Press and noted that a Labour councillor - who incidentally did not express a single word of opinion in the Council Chamber on this subject, criticise us for expressing our delight that his SNP-Labour coalition had finally reacted and realised that Fife Council is really no different to anywhere else and people are keen to transition away from single-use plastics. 
We did not reject his SNP-Labour coalition's motion because there was no motion to reject. They put up an amendment to our motion. We voted for the motion they, predictably voted for the amendment. Therefore, it is inaccurate, misleading and downright false to suggest that we voted against their motion. A motion and amendment is not the same thing, I (wrongly?) assumed councillors were aware of this. 
The Conservative group at Fife Council took the lead on this and myself, as someone who has for many years now been a strong advocate of recycling, the elimination of single-use plastics and a higher tax on polythene shopping bags, do not accept such utter nonsense being spouted.

Relevant Links:




Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Teacher Shortages - There is only so much the Council can do

Last week I wrote about the shortage of teaching staff across Scotland as the new term begins - http://www.kathleenleslie.co.uk/2018/08/new-term-begins-where-are-all-teachers.html

231 schools are still searching for teachers, some with multiple vacancies. Scotland has 3,400 fewer teachers than it did in 2007 (the year the SNP came to power), couple this with the GP crisis, shortage of nursing staff, lack of police and it really doesn't look great. 

Whilst claiming education was their "number one priority" - the oft repeated but looking rather hollow, mantra of the SNP Government at Holyrood, the reality is somewhat different. Instead of building and developing a workforce we see a decrease in teacher numbers, a fall in the number of ASN teaching staff, decreased subject choices in S4, a huge reduction in those taking qualifications in modern languages, a cap on university places for Scottish students, cuts to college places, increased bureaucracy and moves towards centralisation of education - although the Education Bill is currently on (indefinite?) postponement (the list goes on...).

The following article highlighting the shortage appeared in the Dunfermline Press. In response I wrote a letter (see below).





Here is what I had to say in response:

Dear Sir 

Fife Council has admitted that it is 21 high school teachers short in West Fife as the new school term begins (DP 9/8/18). Shortages exist within English, Maths, CDT and Business Education. This comes as no surprise to many of us given that concerns over staffing have time and time again been raised by the trade unions, senior management staff, teachers and parents. I have had several parents contact me over the past couple of months concerned that subject contact time in the senior phase has been reduced in some areas due to a shortage of staff.

Lochgelly High School was left without a Computing teacher last Autumn, are we to see a repeat of this? There is a shortage of Business Education teachers, clearly a popular subject, yet we know that this department at Queen Anne High School has been under threat of closure through the managing change plan. 

Subject choice for National Qualifications in S4 has been reduced to six in some Fife high schools, particularly those in the most deprived areas. Meaning those who want to leave school earlier will have fewer National qualifications and those who stay on for Highers are limited in the options they have. 

Fife has done much to attract teachers to the local authority over the past few years but there is only so much the Council can do. Scotland has 3,400 fewer teachers than it did when the SNP came to power in 2007 and the new academic year begins with almost 700 positions across the country being unfilled. The claim that education is the “number one priority” for this SNP Government is beginning to look rather hollow. 

Yours

Cllr Kathleen Leslie
Scottish Conservative & Unionist
Burntisland, Kinghorn & Western Kirkcaldy 







Wednesday, 15 August 2018

New Term Begins - Vacancies & Cuts - Priorities

Today another depressing statistic was released, at the beginning of this new term, across Scotland, 231 schools are still searching for staff, some for multiple posts. - https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2018/08/15/200-scottish-schools-have-vacancies-pupils-return-summer-break/



Last week it was revealed that 21 high school posts are still unfilled in West Fife. Nearly every week over the Summer period I have received correspondence and comment from concerned parents and staff as to what is going on. This post though focuses on a particular concern that came to me back in May and affected one department in a West Fife high school. Such was my concern that I raised the matter at Full Council on 28th June. The question I put to the SNP-Labour Administration was:


QUESTION 10 FROM COUNCILLOR KATHLEEN LESLIE

Can the Administration confirm that there are no plans to close the Business Education Department at Queen Anne High School at the end of the school session 2018-2019?

ANSWER

Neither the schools, nor the Directorate, are in a position, yet, to determine what the curricular offer available in a school for session 2019/20 will be.

Curriculum rationale is determined by each school to suit its specific needs and is also based on the curricular choices of pupils. 
Schools now have more flexibility to meet better the needs of all learners to increase achievement and raise attainment. However, all learners are entitled to experience a senior phase where they can continue to develop the four capacities and achieve qualifications.


Why did I ask this question? I specifically asked this as I was approached by a member of staff who stated that in the school's managing change exercise the Business Education department had been singled out as potentially to close (this managing change exercise is available on the school's website). This was despite it being oversubscribed in numbers and meaning that if it was to close at the end of session 2018-2019 (new Autumn term 2019) those pupils studying for a National 4 who wanted to progress to National 5 and those studying National 5 and wishing to progress to Higher, may no longer have that opportunity. 

Such was my concern that I wrote to Council officers but did not feel I had a satisfactory answer. Looking at the above answer I do not feel it is much more satisfactory. Since this was asked I was contacted by another member of staff who was also aware of the potential closure of the Business Education department and also the possible reduction in options on offer within the RMPS department too. 

What is going on? The SNP Government continue to claim that education is their "number one priority" yet we have seen a drop in the number of subject choices in schools across Scotland, a fall in the number of teachers, a fall in specialist teachers (Additional Support Needs and teachers of the Deaf) and the removal of Scotland from some of the international data on standards in attainment. 

Only last year one school in Fife was left with no Computing teacher (http://www.kathleenleslie.co.uk/2017/08/lochgelly-high-school-what-happens-next.html) and I have been told of at least one other high school in the local authority with a shortage of Computing teachers. 

Determined to get an answer that would provide assurance that any pupil who wished to continue with their Business Education studies next year I asked the below supplementary question. The answer is less than satisfactory - given the location of the school, the subject being oversubscribed and popular in other West Fife high schools in the Dunfermline area, this answer is simply waffle that says nothing. 


SUPPLEMENTARY
Can you confirm that pupils will be able to carry on with this subject at higher level?

ANSWER
Cannot confirm at present but schools work together to meet curriculum needs of pupils in the area.

Following the Council meeting there was some press coverage. We therefore, appear to be in a situation here in Fife where there is a shortage of teaching staff in some areas whilst at the same time the SNP-Labour Administration - due to a £500 million underspend by the SNP Government at Holyrood, are looking to cut back on departments and staff. 


The faux outrage expressed in this post by the SNP co-leader of Fife Council is quite astounding. He claims we agreed to these cuts. He talks of more flexibility whilst we know subject options in the senior phase in Fife schools have been cut, leading to less pupil choice. (see figures below *)

My letter as a response to the SNP co- leader's comments:

Dear Sir

 I was surprised by Cllr Alexander’s response to the possible closure of the Business Education Department at Queen Anne High School. 

The Administration’s Budget stated the need to “review the budget allocation formulae for secondary school teaching staff”, which the Conservative group did not disagree with. However, as is often the case, the devil is in the detail. The Budget statement went on to read “to deliver a more equitable and targeted distribution, reflecting current requirements”. 

Business Education at Queen Anne High School was oversubscribed as a subject choice this year. Therefore, there is no question of the current requirement meriting a cut. 

It has since come to my attention that RMPS staff were advised that certificate classes would be removed and the department cut to one teacher. Again, despite demand for the subject. 

If the Administration is serious about delivering a more equitable distribution of resources they need to be explaining what is equitable about proposed cuts to areas where there is demand? 

Cllr Alexander appears to be following the example of the First Minister by deflecting blame instead of answering the question. The question is quite simple; will the Business Education Department at Queen Anne High School remain post the 2018-2019 session? Pupils, staff and parents need to be given that assurance. 


Yours 

Cllr Kathleen Leslie
Scottish Conservative & Unionist
Burntisland, Kinghorn & Western Kirkcaldy 







And the following week...

 More faux outrage - with the usual SNP mantra "its Westminster's fault". Education is fully devolved and the SNP Government at Holyrood is sitting on a £500 million underspend last year - money that is desperately needed by local authorities for education and other services. 

* The number of subjects pupils can study for the National Qualification in S4. The "gold standard" used to be 8. Number one priority?...

ANSWER

S4 National Qualifications
Auchmuty HS                       7
Balwearie HS                       7
Beath HS                            6
Bell Baxter HS                    6
Dunfermline HS                  7
Glenrothes HS                    6
Glenwood HS                       6
Inverkeithing HS                  6
Kirkcaldy HS                         7
Levenmouth HS                   6
Lochgelly HS                      6
Madras College                  7
Queen Anne HS                 7
St Andrew’s RCHS              6
St Columba’s RCHS          7
Viewforth HS                        6
Waid Academy                     7
Woodmill HS                        6



Thursday, 9 August 2018

Car Park Or Wildlife Haven?

Just over a week ago I was contacted by a concerned resident in Burntisland about a rumour that the area in front of the Platform Studios at the railway station was going to be turned into a (up to 100 spaces) car park. Indeed, there has been a feasibility study carried out. This process began in January of this year after calls by a councillor (not this councillor) that due to issues with parking in the town that the area in front of the studios should be considered as ground for creating up to a 100 space car park. 

Fife Council being Fife Council, the initial completion date of the study was March but didn't finish until the beginning of this month. Prior to the outcome of the study I went along for a chat with a couple of concerned residents and happened to also meet and speak with some of the small business owners who rent space in the Platform Studios - part of the historic buildings of the station. What appeared to be an area of scrub land and weeds, to the untrained eye, is in fact buzzing with biodiversity and very much alive.

I am a long term critic of almost uncontrolled house-building and development in areas which are farmland and fields. As an environmentalist I have often watched as bulldozers set in and wonder how many rabbits, hedgehogs, foxes, badgers and nesting birds (and so much more) are swept away in the chaos of their homes being overturned. Now it seems that even an area of land sitting between the railway station and the chilly waters of the River Forth (separated by only a road that runs to the sailing club and is favoured by dog walkers along the coast) could be subject to the loss of wildlife space. Wandering around on a hot July afternoon and learning the many names of plants, rarer species of insects and the catalogue of birds - many as part of their migratory route, I was struck by the thought that this is not an area of wasteland but a buzzing habitat that provides space for wildlife that is constantly being subject to loss of land. Bees buzzed around - and no-one can fail to ignore the importance of bees as part of our overall food chain, and I actually spotted a couple of butterflies - anyone else noticed their almost complete absence this year?

Following this I had a chat with some of the small business owners - art and jewellery, unique and beautiful pieces and much of it being created due to the inspiring, relaxing and natural environment. As one of the ladies said - how would a car park inspire creativity? Indeed, she is correct. The Platform Studios are leased from Network Rail but in a telling lack of regard for them there is no mention in the Council's feasibility study of what impact there would be on their work and livelihood. Only a mere note of - "It is assumed that the Platform Studios have some form of tenancy agreement with Network Rail." (italics are mine - assumed - really?!). 

Burntisland has had a long-running issue with parking which once again reared its head with the arrival of the shows and Highland Games. The Council decided that to stop the concerns on games day of parking on the Links it would relocate car and instead have them placed off the side of the Haugh Road (with of course no consultation with residents) and now in an attempt to alleviate this problem which in actual fact should have been resolved a long time ago had the Council taken the matter seriously, a proposal is floating around about turning the area behind the station into a huge parking facility. Keeping in mind that we are talking about increased need for parking in the town in two months of the year. 

I accept that there is very limited parking at the station but I have not seen the claimed evidence of cars piling up on surrounding streets - despite being out and having a scout around during weekday mornings. I am also very much pushing for full accessibility at the station which is long-overdue and would very much support additional disabled bays but is it really the best we can do in 2018 - create another car park? Destroy an area of natural beauty to build a car park in a town where there is a good bus services and commuters can walk or cycle to the station - how about pushing for more bicycle bays? 



It may be I am wrong and there is a huge demand, if that is the case then lets hear it. Up until now that has not appeared to be the case. I said from the beginning of my election campaign that I wanted to listen and represent local people - therefore, tell me your views. 

There will be a meeting at the end of this month between Council officers and councillors for the Ward - the more feedback and thought I have the better.

https://www.fifetoday.co.uk/news/environment/burntisland-residents-asked-for-views-on-car-parking-at-railway-station-1-4781160

My comments to this week's Fife Free Press:


Burntisland Station – Parking Proposals

Encourage more cars or encourage a home for biodiversity? This is the question put by Burntisland councillor, Kathleen Leslie

“In January, a feasibility study was launched to examine the need for increased parking provision at the railway station. The land is owned by Network Rail with any proposed car park to sit adjacent to the Platform Studios.” 

Concerns about parking availability have once again caused much discussion and debate in the town with the annual Highland Games and the shows, resulting in calls, from some, for more parking. However, Cllr Leslie takes the view that is an increase in visitors over the Summer months a justification for spending huge amounts of money on a new car park and removing an area of natural beauty?

“The Highland Games and the shows are fantastic for the town and benefit local businesses and residents. To demand further car parks though seems slightly archaic. There is a train station, bus routes and most streets in the town are within walking distance. More creative management of the available parking is perhaps what is needed rather than plough in with plans that threaten local wildlife habitats.”

“The area, at first glance, appears to be just scrub and weeds but does in fact attract migrating birds, rare insect and butterfly species and importantly, bees. There are also small businesses being run from the Platform Studios and they appear to have been overlooked in the study. A couple of the artists have spoken of how the space is very inspiring to them, something a tarmacked car park would fail to do.”

“I very much want increased accessibility at the station and fully support disabled parking bays. However, is a large car park really essential to railway users on a day to day basis? Should the Council be spending money on this when we are all being, rightly, encouraged to walk, cycle and reduce our usage of cars? Is it not right that a haven for flora and fauna be preserved?”

Cllr Leslie is keen to hear what residents think. “Councillors have been invited to a meeting at the end of the month to further discuss the study. Therefore, do let me know what you think. Local government is there to give local people a voice and that is what I have always set out to do.”






"The Royal Scotsman" rumbled through the station. The Platform Studios - proposed parking site
How amazing is this? An insect house!



Friday, 3 August 2018

Burntisland Railway Station - Access Must Be A Priority

Hello everyone. I must apologise for the long delay between posts. I think it must have been this fantastic weather this Summer which has kept me away from writing quite so much. Although, having said that, I have been putting plenty of updates on my Councillor Facebook page, so have a swipe over to it to see what I have been doing.

This is going to be a fairly short post before I get back to writing on here more regularly. It is just to provide a little update on the accessibility issue at Burntisland Railway Station. I wrote about this earlier and the link can be found here - http://www.kathleenleslie.co.uk/2018/04/disabled-access-burntisland-railway.html

An initial meeting to bring together community groups and elected representatives is to be held later this month. Here is the comment (in full) which I issued as a press release earlier this week.

Burntisland Railway Station – Accessibility

Following contacting Network Rail in April to request a meeting to look at accessibility at Burntisland Railway Station, Cllr Kathleen Leslie is optimistic that progress can be made.

“Whilst I felt the response from Network Rail was noncommittal, last year the UK Government announced additional funding for station accessibility improvements in the next Rail Control Period. This will begin next year and run until 2024.”

“Here this will be via Transport Scotland and my understanding is that they have started work on their nomination list so I believe that this gives us a real opportunity to push for Burntisland Railway Station to be considered.”

Residents have written to me highlighting their concerns with the lack of access and the Burntisland Community Development Trust has organised a meeting for 22ndAugust to create a steering group. This will include various groups within the town and also, hopefully, support from locally elected members including MSPs.”

“Prior to the meeting I will be contacting Transport Scotland to request further information on their nomination list for station upgrades. Combined with the feedback I have received so far from residents and affected rail users, I do believe there will be a valid case to progress so that a fully accessible rail facility exists in Burntisland.”

“I continue to encourage anyone affected by the lack of access to get in contact with me.”

 (Thanks to the Fife Free Press for publishing this)

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