The parents’ lobby has suggested education be centralised. Should anyone be surprised? Highland Council’s draft budget indicates schools could close, school days could be shortened and 1,000 council staff, including 50 secondary school teachers, could lose their jobs. And Highland is not alone. Many councils are looking at the education sector for savings, in a scale not seen for many years.
Highland’s finance director, Derek Yule, said: “In the past we have tried to save education but that’s really not been possible at this stage at all. We can’t keep chipping away at services and finding one per cent here and there. We have come to a point where we have to consider a real reduction in services.”
Education is by far the biggest part of local authorities’ responsibility, and so is the biggest budget from which to find savings. The SNP Government point to the fact levels of local government funding have been maintained despite cuts to the Scottish budget from Westminster, but opposition parties will point to the ongoing freeze on the council tax, which has put stress on budgets. “The SNP have broken local authority finance through their sustained and underfunded council tax freeze,” Labour’s Sarah Boyack told John Swinney in the chamber.
The council tax freeze is not the only factor, however. Public private partnerships continue, despite the legacy of Labour’s PFI school-building projects meaning the proportion of council education spending going directly to private consortia is rising every year, squeezing budgets further.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have presided over five years of quantitative easing, started by the last Labour government, which has seen the Bank of England pump £375bn into the UK economy. In short, they are printing money, redistributing wealth from savers to borrowers and inflating the price of assets.
While the council tax freeze then prevents a rise of the tax burden on the property of people whose incomes are falling in real terms, it also represents a falling figure in terms of council income. Local authorities are being squeezed by political decisions on all sides, and apparently it is time for our children’s development to suffer.
The Scottish Parliament has had control over local taxation since 1999, and reform has been on the agenda just as long. It is surely no longer credible for the political parties to dodge the debate.