Highland Council urges Scottish Government to consider the impact of a minimum 25 hour primary school week

Chair of Education, Children and Adult Services Committee, Cllr Drew Millar is urging the Scottish Government to rethink their proposal to impose a minimum 25 hour primary school week.

He said: “The majority of Highland Primary Schools have always operated a 22½ hour week in P1 – P3 classes.  This involves 272 classes, from Caithness to Badenoch.

“This is a long standing position, established because of the length of the day for young children who may have to travel considerable distances to school. 

“Parents, teachers and communities have not been asking the Council to add an additional half an hour in class every day for these young children, so Highland Council was more than taken aback by this week’s announcement that Ministers intend to amend the Education (Scotland) Bill, so that every primary school pupil must have a minimum of 25 hours with teachers every week.”

Cllr Millar went on to say: “The full impact of such legislation must be considered very carefully. The proposed imposition of a 25 hour week on schools and authorities does not take account of local needs and circumstances.  For example, much education is supported by tutors, instructors and assistants who are not registered teachers. Would this legislation mean that music or artistic tuition could not be delivered? What about children with additional support needs who have therapies delivered by other professionals?  How will residential trips and excursions be affected? These are all questions which must be answered.”

Cllr Millar stressed the needs of children and families in rural authorities with long travel distances such as Highland, must also be considered, as well as the need for evidenced based decision making. 

He said: “There is no evidence to support a connection between the length of the school week and educational attainment. Most European countries operate on a lower number of hours per year than in Scotland. Indeed, children in other countries start school at a later age, with more time spent in informal learning through kindergarten and nursery. And many of these countries achieve better attainment results than in Scotland.”

Bill Alexander, Director of Care and Learning, added: “There is no correlation between a 25 hour primary school week and high attainment levels.  Many countries that achieve better performance in literacy and numeracy than Scotland, have a shorter school week – and this is certainly the norm for younger children.  The critical issues are the quality of learning and teaching, and the infrastructure and support arrangements.  This proposed amendment would create enormous doubt about the sustainability of education in many of our communities, and it is a step too far, when we are already facing enormous resource challenges.”

He added: “It would mean providing more than 1000 extra teaching hours, and recruiting more than 30 additional teachers, at a time when it is difficult to recruit to existing vacancies, and this number of available teachers simply does not exist.”

Budget Leader Cllr Bill Fernie said: “An extra half an hour in class every day would cost Highland Council at least £2million. This would be a significant additional cost at a time when our budget is being substantially reduced with further grant cuts and a continuation of the Council Tax freeze. This would be yet another central imposition that would constrain how the local authority can manage its resources and respond to community needs.  Unless this policy was centrally funded by the Scottish Government, it could mean cuts elsewhere in education and children’s services."

“Highland’s rural schools are already under increasing pressure as a consequence of the present budget challenge.  This new legislation will only increase that pressure, and will mean that some schools become less viable, which could force the authority to consult with parents about the possibility of mothballing.” 

Cllr Fernie went on to say: “The Highland Council has been consulting about a 22½ hour week across all ages in Primary Schools. This takes account of the experience of other European countries, but it is also about supporting the delivery of sustainable education in an age of austerity.  The Council has yet to decide about this issue, but if Government were to remove this option, it would reduce our capacity to make decisions to meet the needs of our communities.  It would also reduce our capacity to achieve around £4million efficiencies, meaning a total impact on the education budget of some £6million.”

Councillor Drew Millar, Chair of the Education, Children & Adult Services Committee, concluded: “This latest announcement would be catastrophic for Highland Council, as we are already struggling to balance our budget in these extremely challenging financial times. I hope there is still the possibility for the Government to consider the implications of this amendment, and its likely negative impact on children, communities and schools in the Highlands.  I am astonished and dismayed at this further interference and imposition by Central Government on Local Authorities’ remit and ability to deliver education in Scotland.  Furthermore, I am disappointed that there has been no consultation about this matter, and hope that the Cabinet Secretary can now agree to take account of these views.”

3 Dec 2015
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