The years ahead are going to be challenging ones for Falkirk Council’s education service. But bosses are confident they have the skills and people to cope.
As they juggle a spike in births, a rise in resident numbers thanks to house building and new legislation from the Scottish Government, the service is working hard to ensure learning doesn’t suffer.
Acting joint head of education, Gary Greenhorn said: “There are a lot of challenges, particularly in regards to increases to nursery hours and there is not a lot of time to have things in place to cope.”
One of those challenges follows the Scottish Government’s plans, announced earlier this year, to provide two-year-olds with out-of-work parents with 600 hours a year of free nursery care from August. Around 15 per cent of two-year-olds will be covered by the scheme, meaning hundreds of Falkirk youngsters will need placed.
Mr Greenhorn said: “Although funding is being provided for the early years officers, there are questions over where we can put all these extra children and how to implement it. We aren’t even sure exactly how many families will benefit as the details of exactly who will qualify haven’t been announced. There isn’t a lot of time to get things worked out.”
This new provision will be extended to families receiving certain benefits in 2015, lifting the number of children qualifying to one in four.
In addition, the Scottish Government’s plans to offer free school meals to children up to primary three comes into force in January.
While Holyrood will fund the meals, there are concerns about the ability of school kitchens and dining halls to cope with the extra demand.
Councillor Alan Nimmo, education portfolio holder for Falkirk, said: “We are meeting with CoSLA to voice our concerns about meeting these in such a short timescale.”
Population increases, a result of house-building, and a mini-baby boom in 2009, which saw 1942 births recorded in Falkirk compared to 1685 in 2012, is adding to problems. Primary school intakes will peak this year, and secondary in 2021.
Senior planning officer Richard Teed said: “A lot of work goes into the statistics, trying to predict school numbers by looking at birth rates and new housing. On top of that we have to try to predict the number of placing requests we will get as we have to have reason to turn down a request and are bound to grant as many as we can.
“We are using modular accommodation in some schools just now, but it’s to cope with peaks in the school roll.
“If it’s still being used five years on, we look at extending or moving school boundaries.
“With best value, we can’t spend to extend a school only for the increased numbers to be a temporary spike and the extension not needed in the long term.”
Councillor Nimmo said: “While these are challenging times for education services, I have every confidence in them. The acting heads are doing a stellar job and the whole team is fantastic.
“Education services in the Falkirk area are second to none.
“We’ve replaced all our high schools and have replaced lots of primary schools as well, so children are learning in suitable environments.
“I’m incredibly proud of Falkirk Council’s education services.”