Our schools facing crisis over pupil support

Dumfries and Galloway Council’s education department is facing serious challenges to both support pupils with special needs and meet budget targets.

A report from the local authority to elected members of its Wigtown area committee, ahead of their meeting on Wednesday, marks out the difficulties facing schools since classroom assistants were withdrawn.

The education service has to meet a savings target of £483,000 for the 2017/2018 financial year while meeting the challenge of a 60 per cent increase in pupils who need one-to-one full time support.

This unprecedented increase is eating into the hours available for additional support to be provided for these pupils through the council’s Supporting Learners teams, brought in to replace the classroom assistants. These four teams are split into areas and have a set number of ‘support hours’ they can provide to schools, but to achieve the budget cuts required, the education department face having to cut back on support hours at exactly the same time as demand is rising.

Council officers admit in the report that the “capacity to deliver the task was underestimated and the timescale ambitious”.

A review is under way to identify all pupils needing full-time one-to-one support to see if there is any over-allocation of support staff in one area that could potentially be redeployed to help other schools in another.

“But to date, there is no evidence of over-allocation as schools have already used their total allocation of support hours to provide support to pupils in the school system.

“There is also the threat of moving staff who are settled at a particular school and have built positive relationships with both pupils and staff.

The report also highlights inconsistencies across school in the region, with many different approaches in the way Supporting Learners staff are utilised.

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The report concludes: “These are challenging times, and education services have been making every effort to use these opportunities to improve children’s experiences and outcomes. Lessons have to be learnt about timescales and ambitions in delivering change and about ensuring all stakeholders are well-prepared.”

Mid Galloway councillor Graham Nicol commented: “These savings were taken in good faith and with the advice of officers. It would appear that a bad miscalculation has been made by someone somewhere. The unprecedented increase in demand should have been flagged up before the savings cuts were put forward.

“We, as councillors, are faced with massive saving cuts having to be made.

“As education takes up 40 per cent of the council budget and it is difficult to find the required savings without affecting education.”