Scotland politics

Council 'straitjacket' over school cuts

kids in classroom

The reaction by some in local government to moves to stop the length of the primary school week being cut is, ultimately, more about money than education.

The Scottish government is to change the law to make sure children spend a minimum of 25 hours a week in class.

It follows rows over attempts by some councils to reduce the length of the school week to help balance their books.

Nobody in the mainstream has seriously argued that a cut in the school week would actually help improve children's attainment.

Councils which have looked at the idea would argue they have done so out of financial necessity. Their argument has, essentially, been that a cut in the school week for some is a "least worst option".

When West Dunbartonshire advanced the idea earlier this year, they argued that the cut would affect things such as assemblies and "golden time" - not actual teaching time in the classroom.

The savings come, for instance, by reducing the number of hours when the building itself is open.

Parents have often reacted angrily to the proposals though. Quite apart from any concern they may have about their children's education suffering, some would face practical problems with childcare.

With local government funding tight, the problem comes with the amount of flexibility councils have to find the best ways to balance their books.

Education in Scotland is, essentially, a national service which councils are entrusted to deliver.

There are many nationally set rules and guidelines. For instance, teachers' pay and conditions are standardised across Scotland and there are already minimum requirements on the number of days when schools have to be opened.

Councils get the bulk of their money from the Scottish government and the latest funding deal commits councils to maintaining the number of teachers - even though some had argued that was not necessarily the best use of their resources.

Councils are under a legal obligation to balance their books. If one potential option for savings is closed, inevitably, it could lead to greater pressure on another service.

Local government organisation Cosla is also angry about the government's announcement, claiming there had been a lack of consultation.

Some in local government argue councils need greater financial freedom to be able to properly respond to local needs.

They see the current financial settlement as something of a straightjacket because they have little real control over the overall size of their budget.

A report in the next few weeks by a commission set up by the Scottish government and Cosla will outline various alternatives to the council tax - the tax which typically raises around 15p of every pound councils spend.

In some council chambers, there will be disappointment if the debate is not widened to also look at whether councils should be less dependent on central government for cash and have more options on how to raise money locally.

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