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
• 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:

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?"

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