Tough decisions on future of Falkirk schools

Pupils at Nethermains Primary improve their literacy during a specially organised event
Pupils at Nethermains Primary improve their literacy during a specially organised event

Giving youngsters the best possible start in life remains a priority with the focus on improving their experience in school.

But it comes at a time when local authorities have never been more strapped for cash and every action scrutinised to make sure every penny they do spend is being put to good use.

With the phrases “raising attainment” and “positive outcomes” regularly used to describe the classroom culture in 2015, what the majority of parents, and many teachers, want to know is “are our children getting the best deal possible?”.

Against a backdrop of Curriculum for Excellence, introduced to provide young people with a more rounded education, and a changing exam system, councils are being encouraged to maintain teacher numbers by the Scottish Government and have to sign up to the deal if they want to receive the full cash settlement to fund their services in the coming year.

All this against a backdrop of a council tax freeze, effectively stopping local authorities using this as a way of bringing in more money.

Last week, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) agreed to write to the Scottish Government calling on them to enter new talks over the threat of £10 million being withheld if teacher numbers fall.

Until now Falkirk Council has maintained its teacher numbers to the agreed level. However, yesterday (Wednesday) councillors were being asked to cut the time primary children spend in the classroom from 25 to 22.5 hours.

Members heard the move would save £1.91 million and would also see the loss of 17 teaching posts.

But it will be a last-gasp measure, only introduced in 2016/17 if the cash cannot be found elsewhere.

The proposal would see pupils finish their education at lunchtime every Friday. However, it could see an end to in-service days as teacher training could then be carried out on these afternoons when youngsters are no longer there.

Councillor Alan Nimmo, education spokesman said: “We are still within our quota and have never been issued with any fines.

“The proposed change to the school week would still have to go out to consultation if the savings need to be made.

“You have to look at it in context: education is the biggest part of our budget and we are trying to protect it as much as possible.

“The next few years are going to be tough and there are implications for frontline services but we are trying to mitigate that as much as possible.”

However, Scotland’s largest teaching union has labelled the move “disgraceful” and Falkirk’s proposal will go to the vote days after West Dunbartonshire was forced to drop a similar move after a public outcry.

A spokesman for the Educational Institute for Scotland said: “The EIS, both locally in Falkirk and at a national level, is absolutely opposed to any proposals that would cut the primary school week for pupils.

“The proposals in Falkirk are disgraceful and would dilute the quality of education that children receive in Falkirk primary schools. Teachers and parents will be, quite rightly, horrified that the council is seeking to move towards a part-time teaching week for primary pupils.

“Strong opposition is already emerging, and the EIS is encouraging teachers to work with parents groups and the wider community to fight this damaging cut.

Literacy is key to future of all

Whatever the constraints placed on council budgets, elected members and officials are determined that educating our children and young people will remain a priority.

With literacy at the heart of education, last year the council endorsed a four-year strategy to raise standards and give youngsters a better chance in later life.

Much of the work is seen as groundbreaking and other local authorities are already starting to follow Falkirk’s example.

The 2014-17 strategy states: “Falkirk Council’s literacy strategy shares the Scottish Government’s vision to raise literacy standards for all and to improve outcomes and life chances for the people of Falkirk. Education services seeks to ensure that all of the council’s children and young people learn to read, write, listen and talk in order to allow them to reach their full potential, to engage fully in 21st Century society and to be able to access lifelong learning.”

Last month, the council’s education services marked the first year of the strategy, ‘Zero tolerance to illeteracy’, with a meeting of partners, including, teachers, pupils, Education Scotland, employers, Forth Valley College, charities and the third sector.

Organised by Sharon Wallace, a curriculum support officer with the school improvement team, on the back of the success of work taking place in Falkirk she has been asked by Education Scotland to make a presentation at the next National Literacy Network to share good practice.

She said: “It’s aimed at everyone, from pre-birth to past retirement, with the objective of raising attainment and providing them with all the support they require.

“It has been rewarding to see how it has been embraced and schools are now sharing their success stories with us. We have teachers running courses to pass on their good practice with others which is very encouraging.”

Council considering range of measures to save on its budget

The education services budget will increase next year by over £3 million to £174.126 million, equating to a 1.8 per cent rise.

It includes an additional £1.631 million funding to implement early learning and childcare provisions, including 600 hours of nursery time for all three and four years olds and eligible two year olds.

An additional £1.215 million has been provided for free school meals for every pupil in P1-P3.

The budget includes savings of over £2 million in 2015/16. Options include reducing support for learning assistants in school (£100,000); reducing management, admin and educational psychologists (£325,000); reducing building cleaning frequency (£200,000).

It is proposed that increased charges from April for school meals will see breakfast rise by 15p to £1.30 and lunchtime meals by 5p.