SNP - Tom Wills

Children’s services set for £2.5m spending lift

SHETLAND Islands Council’s budget for children’s services is to rise by more than £2.5 million in the new financial year.

The department faces rising costs in multiple areas and successive councils have made education – along with social care – a key spending priority. 

The children’s services budget for 2018/19 of £42.18 million takes into account an annual service payment of £455,000 for the new Anderson High School and just over £700,000 on increased staffing within the schools service.

That includes around 16 full-time equivalent staff including six primary teachers and several additional support needs posts due to increased demand.

The rise may raise some eyebrows following years of public spending austerity, but the council’s overall financial outlook was boosted last week by an additional £5 million from the Scottish Government towards closing the ferry funding gap and a rise in the Scotland-wide local government budget following an amendment from the Scottish Greens.

Head of finance Jonathan Belford told councillors on Monday that pay awards of three per cent for staff earning under £30,000 a year and two per cent for those earning more – as per the Scottish Government’s draft budget – had been factored in.

In all the budget has grown by £2.677 million on 2017/18 – though departmental staff have identified savings of £148,000 a year.

Belford said there were substantial spending increases in residential and family care placements, as well as in education where costs have risen in line with higher pupil rolls as the council must meet the Scottish Government’s prescribed pupil-teacher ratio.

Committee chairman George Smith said: “A lot of the growth is in social care, and in ensuring that we have sufficient staffing to manage some of our most vulnerable people.

“We also have… an increase in staffing in the school service and again we are constrained, to some extent, by the school estate that we have – which is an estate the people of Shetland value – and indeed the Scottish Government’s requirement in terms of pupil-teacher ratio.

“When our school rolls increase we inevitably have to consider whether we have sufficient teachers or not. I make no apology at all for this budget this year.”

Smith added praise for the department’s staff for managing to find savings when, after years of public spending austerity, “efficiencies are becoming more and more difficult to find across the council”.

Meanwhile, Smith and committee vice-chairman Theo Smith have both expressed fears that funding to expand pre-school education will not be sufficient.

A fresh application is to be submitted to the Scottish Government outlining how the SIC plans to increase early years and childcare from 600 hours to 1,140 hours a year – roughly 30 hours a week – for three and four year olds.

It has been trialled in Urafirth since April 2017, while nurseries and playgroups in Whiteness, Dunrossness and Burra have also begun expanding their hours.

Smith said he was broadly in favour of the plan, a key aspiration of the SNP government which is to be implemented by 2020, to provide better learning for children and to enable more parents to return to work if they wish to.

“I hope that they will fully fund this initiative when the plans are re-submitted,” he said. “Some of the early evidence, we’re seeing increased confidence and attainment levels and abilities to learn are enhanced by being able to access more hours.

“This is absolutely at the heart of much of what this council and its partners want to do. We must continue to press the Scottish Government to fund what is not just their ambition but our ambition as well.”

Smith said parents’ expectations had been set high and “if we canna deliver that there’ll be a lot of unhappiness out there, and I think it’s very, very difficult for our staff to plan when we really don’t know what we’re going to get from the Scottish Government”.

He added: “The Scottish Government say that they’re going to fully fund this, but their record on fully funding is not all that spectacular, so I await to see this with interest.”

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