The council have had to shelve their controversial plans to save £909,000 by cutting teacher posts after the Scottish Government threatened to withhold £3.44 million of funding if the local authority refused to agree to maintaining current teacher numbers.
The council were forced to agree to the terms of the Scottish Government’s settlement deal to secure funding of £303,000 to meet the government requirements but the shortfall of £606,000 will now have to be found elsewhere within the education budget.
But councillors are angry that Dumfries and Galloway’s better that average teacher/pupil ratio counts for nothing with the Scottish Government. The national average is 13.7 - Dumfries and Galloway’s is 12.7.
Had the local authority pressed ahead with plans to cut 37 teacher posts, their share of the national pot that rewards councils for agreeing the settlement for teacher numbers plus additional money to maintain teacher numbers and money for freezing council tax - a total of £3.44million.
Council Leader, Ronnie Nicholson, said “Our Council has one of the best teacher pupil ratios in Scotland, far better than both the national average and the Scottish Government’s previous target. It’s frustrating that the failure at a national level to reach agreement on teacher numbers means the Scottish Government’s position is now no longer a national target of 13.5 but simply that teacher numbers should be frozen at current levels. That means as a council we are being penalised for working hard over the years to maintain teacher numbers. For the forthcoming year we need to maintain a ratio of 12.7 but other councils with a ratio well above the target national target of 13.5 will be allowed to continue to be above that target. The additional funding being provided to our council is just £303,000 – a £606,000 shortfall in the funding required to meet the freeze. As a result additional savings will need to be made within the Education budget to meet the Scottish Government’s new criteria. Fortunately, the recent council budget agreed did mean a £1.6 million increase in the Education budget to £132million so this equates to extra savings of 0.5%“
Mid Galloway Conservative Councillor Graham Nicol, who’s party backed the labour group’s budget at the full council, said: “You would have to ask the question - who is running the council? Local people or the Scottish government? The changes that went through the full council on budget day were going to give us an enhanced service on a local area basis. Across the Dumfries and Galloway region there would still have been 500 employed in that service with a budget agreed of £16.3 million. What had been agreed also gave the people employed a career structure and an opportunity to upskill in the following years to get qualifications, something they didn’t have before.”
Concerns about the previous threat to learning support staff jobs agreed in the budget had been raised at the recent Wigtown and District Community Council meeting. When the news broke that the council were being forced to do a u-turn by the government, community council secretary Matt Kitson commented: “This announcement, coming over the half term break, was cautiously welcomed by parents and the Community Council. Concerns remain however about the impact on Learning Support delivery across Dumfries and Galloway as it is not clear from the announcement whether the planned cuts to this crucial service for the most vulnerable pupils are also now to be shelved. When announcing the original policy decision, the Council only provided headline numbers to be cut with sparse information available to parents on the impact at local school level. As a result of this lack of transparency, concerns remain regarding the Council’s underlying agenda, with parents believing that cuts are inevitable in the longer term. We would therefore urge the Council to utilise this opportunity to engage with Parent and Community groups to ensure the continued high standard of education across Dumfries and Galloway.”
SNP Councillors had moved that the Council’s budget setting be deferred until information on the settlement terms could be provided to all groups, but this proposal was ruled incompetent by the Leader.
SNP Councillor Andy Ferguson said: “This is an embarrassing climbdown for the Labour Administration and, to make it worse for them, it could and should have been avoided if Ronnie Nicholson had backed our position on budget day. It is another total vindication of the position we took then and a sad indictment of Labour’s attitude towards other views.
“The public be that pupils, parents or our teaching staff will welcome this intervention by the Scottish Government to protect teacher numbers in our schools.”
Councillor Nicholson replied: “The dishonest claims by SNP councillors that had the council budget setting been delayed by a week, this latest Government cut would simply have disappeared is a desperate attempt to detract attention away from the fact that parents in Dumfries and Galloway are being robbed blind by the SNP. Instead of acting as apologists for the SNP in Edinburgh it is about time that just once they stood up for our region and fought for a decent deal.”