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. 

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