The reality of the cuts being forced on Scottish councils was all too apparent at Aberdeenshire Council last Thursday (24 March). Several papers at the Education, Learning and Leisure Committee dealt with proposed policy changes intended to give effect to budget cuts voted through the Council in November and February.
On the agenda were cuts to secondary teacher numbers, the number of depute heads in some academies, the provision of fruit for primary pupils, and the extension of charging for musical instrument tuition. The Democratic Independent group of councillors, of which I am a member, opposed these cuts at the full council meeting in November 2010 when the Council voted for budget reductions totaling almost £27 million in 2011/12.
The specific proposals at the Education, Learning and Leisure Committee covered only a small proportion of the wide-ranging cuts Aberdeenshire is making in education. The proposals on secondary school staffing will impact directly on classes, including possibly resulting in larger class sizes for S1 and S2 Mathematics and English, and also on school management – at a time of change in the curriculum.
The proposals for additional charging for musical instrument tuition may result in some pupils being prevented from learning for economic reasons. The proposal to end the provision of free fruit to P1 and P2 children three days a week was part of proposals for reducing spending on school catering.
Obviously, none of these service reductions is desirable, and no-one at the Committee pretended they were.
Take the fruit provision for example.
We know we have a considerable problem of poor diet, such as too much fat and salt, and associated health issues such as obesity. So learning about food and healthy eating is an important part of education. Getting young children accustomed to healthy food is crucial as part of setting a pattern for later life.
Given the seriousness of the problem in Scotland, addressing this issue has to be a priority. Not only does the individual benefit, but there are potentially significant savings to the public sector, particularly the NHS, from improvements to people’s diet. We should not therefore be reducing efforts to get young children into good eating habits.
What makes me angry is that these cuts are unnecessary.
It is still wasting money on preparatory work for the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, a project that is now simply unaffordable
Firstly, the Council should not have been put in the position it has been by the Scottish Government, having both its grant cut and a Council Tax freeze imposed on it. Effectively, allowing for inflation, the Council Tax is being cut year after year. That is not financially sustainable and public services are suffering as a result.
Had the Council been allowed to decide on the level of Council Tax next year, some of the cuts to services could have been avoided. Aberdeenshire’s Band D Council Tax is £1141. A one penny in the pound increase, £11.41 per year or 22 pence per week, would bring in around £1.2 million to help pay for public services.
All the cuts included on the Education, Learning and Leisure Committee’s agenda last Thursday and more could have been avoided had the Council been allowed to increase the Council Tax by just a penny in the pound.
Secondly, the Council could have chosen different priorities for spending. It is still wasting money on preparatory work for the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, a project that is now simply unaffordable. Schools should come first, not grandiose and unaffordable road schemes.
But, at last Thursday’s Education, Learning and Leisure Committee, all the proposed education cuts were accepted by the Committee.
– Martin Ford is the top candidate on the Scottish Green Party’s list of MSP candidates for the North East Scotland Region at the forthcoming Scottish Parliament election.