Scotland politics

Councils to be banned from cutting primary school week

Pupils in class Image copyright PA

Councils are to be banned from cutting the length of the primary school week to save money.

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

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

The EIS teachers union has welcomed the move but local government organisation Cosla is angry.

The government says primary school children will be guaranteed at least 950 hours a year of teaching time, equivalent to 25 hours a week.

Ministers have decided to amend the Education Bill, which is currently before parliament, to do this.

As the law stands, councils have to open schools for 190 days a year but the length and structure of the school day is not specified in legislation.

However, the Curriculum for Excellence operates on an assumption of 25 hours of teacher contact each week in primary schools.

In a few parts of the country, councils have closed schools on Friday afternoons for some time. This could continue as long as the total number of hours over the year met the legal requirement.

However the change in the law puts the brakes on moves to actually reduce the overall length of the school week. A few councils had considered this as they weighed up budget cuts.


Analysis

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".

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.

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One of the biggest rows was in West Dunbartonshire where the council agreed in February to cut two-and-a-half hours from the primary school week in a bid to save about £1m. Within days, the council made a humiliating U-turn after it came up against huge local opposition.

Highland Council recently revisited the idea of a four-and-a-half day school week. Last year, it delayed a proposal to reduce the time pupils in primaries four, five, six and seven spend in class.

On Wednesday, the council's budget leader responded with disappointment to the government's announcement.

Cllr Bill Fernie said: "There is not any evidence which links better education attainment to a 25-hour school week and this would put further pressure on local authority budgets and our ability to make the necessary savings required to manage the anticipated cut in grant funding."

'Certainty for pupils'

The planned change in the law would also allow ministers to put in place a minimum number of hours in secondary schools.

Education secretary Angela Constance said: "The Scottish Government is working with local authorities, parents and others to ensure our education system delivers both excellence and equity for every child. We are driving a relentless effort to boost educational achievement and, critically, to make quicker progress in closing the attainment gap, for example through the £100m Scotland Attainment Challenge.

"Scotland's teachers are absolutely critical to these efforts. That's why we have committed investment of up to £51m this year specifically to help local authorities to maintain teacher numbers.

"And it's why we will legislate to provide certainty for pupils, parents and teachers about the length of the school week - a teacher time guarantee that every one of our children and young people should expect, and which they deserve.

"Decisions on the amount of time with teachers, in class and at school should always be made based on the potential educational benefit for children, rather than on how much money can be saved."

But Cosla, the organisation that represents most councils, is unhappy the government made an announcement of such importance "after zero consultation with local government".

Cllr Stephanie Primrose, Cosla education, children and young person spokesperson, said: "The government seems to be suggesting that they have no choice to legislate for the length of the school day despite not once raising it with Cosla.

"They have, after all, had plenty of opportunity to discuss this with us. We met with the Cabinet Secretary to discuss the Education Bill only a few weeks ago and have been in almost daily contact with Government as part of the spending review without even a hint to suggest this was on their radar.

"Yet we hear about it only a matter of hours before amendments are submitted. This is either bad planning on their part, or a knee-jerk response to an issue that was far from the top of the pile a matter of weeks ago."

Union welcomes government plan

But the largest teachers union, the EIS, gave a warm welcome to the announcement.

General Secretary Larry Flanagan said: "The EIS has always been vehemently opposed to any attempts to reduce the length of the pupil week which would serve only to dilute the quality of education in Scotland's primary schools.

"This important piece of legislation is good news for pupils and parents as it will guarantee equity of provision across the country and will also ensure that teachers' jobs and pupils' learning time are protected."

The government is also to stipulate a minimum level for school clothing grants for children from low income families.

BBC Scotland research earlier this year highlighted wide variations between the clothing grants in different council areas while one council - Angus - intended to phase them out.

The minimum level will be announced later.

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