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. 


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. 



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 -

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. 


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