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SIC raises concerns over future school funding

SHETLAND Islands Council does not believe a future “Scotland-wide approach” to school funding would work in the isles as the government looks into changing the way it pays for education to be delivered across the country.

Earlier this year the Scottish Government introduced its consultation on fair funding for schools to seek views on “developing a new, more consistent approach to school funding”.

It works alongside the government’s Education Governance: Next Steps paper, which sets out a “vision for a school and teacher-led system” that would look to devolve more authority from councils to individual schools.

But the SIC’s education and families committee says Shetland’s “unique circumstances” of being a small island community means that one size fits all proposals would not work locally.

In a draft consultation response presented to the committee on Monday, it said there “appears to be an assumption in the consultation that all local authorities have a similar level of devolved school management in place for schools.”

It continues to say that Shetland does not have a fully devolved scheme of financial support to head teachers, mainly due to the number of small schools, with the only element that local head teachers have responsibility over is their learning materials budget.

The response states that the percentage of total budget spent on education in Shetland – 40 per cent – is lower than the Scottish average of 45 per cent.

It says that this is largely due to the financial demands of funding and running an inter-island ferry service, which increases its spend on roads and transport to 19 per cent compared to the Scottish average of four per cent.

Somewhat ironically, achieving fair funding for the ferries had been something which the SIC believed would be forthcoming from the Scottish Government – although recent remarks from transport minister Humza Yousaf appeared to suggest otherwise.

The response also questions how devolving staffing budgets to head teachers would work in practice, while it also says a “sole focus” on school funding may risk removing schools from the “strategic environment” of the SIC’s children’s services department, which oversees education.

The council adds that the Pupil Equity Fund (PEF) model – which aims raise attainment for schoolchildren experiencing poverty by giving councils funding based on the numbers of pupils between P1 and S3 receiving free school meals – does not accurately target pupils in Shetland who experience disadvantage because they are widely dispersed.

“Using measures like free school meal entitlement, and the Scottish index of multiple deprivation, do not help us to target these groups of children,” the response adds.

“It produces very small amounts for our schools and disperses funding too widely to make it in any way useful for funding interventions.”

The response concludes: “We trust that the deputy first minister, and his staff, will consider our response, and recognise the challenges faced by a remote rural authority, such as Shetland, and further, ensure that the assurances previously made with regards to island proofing, are adhered to – we would be very willing to enter into dialogue with the Scottish Government around how this might be determined.”

At a meeting of the education and families committee on Monday, chairman George Smith noted an agreement reached on Friday by councils umbrella organisation COSLA and the Scottish Government which “delivers a collective commitment to collaborative working on educational improvement”.

It will see all of Scotland’s 32 local authorities be part of one of six ‘improvement collaboratives’ on a regional basis, meaning that it will be accountable to the partner local authorities at the same time as reporting to the chief inspector of Education Scotland.

Smith said he was “delighted” to hear of this partnership between the government and local councils when asked for his views by SNP councillor Robbie McGregor.

But he said there are “real points to make about how things are different here” and said the PEF model “obviously does not suit Shetland at all”.

Smith added that it would be “absolutely impossible” for head teachers who also have teaching duties to take on an extra admin role.

He said talks between the SIC and Scottish deputy first minister John Swinney are pencilled in for later this month in Edinburgh.

The draft consultation response was noted by members of the committee and it will be finalised ahead of the deadline of 13 October.