EDUCATION: TOP OF THE TABLE CLASH AT SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT

NOTEBOOK by BILL HEANEY

It’s an old trick used by politicians the world over. It always happens around budget times. The parties (plural) instruct their officials to come up with a list of cuts they are supposed to be considering. The worst cuts they can think of. These cuts are leaked to the media where they are greeted with a great deal of weeping and gnashing of teeth accompanied by a session of shroud waving.
And when Budget Day comes around the politicians are able to tell the gullible punters that these cuts will not be happening although there will still be cuts, but not cuts as serious as the ones they flagged up to the media who have naively reported on them under big, black headlines, recording a victory for the spin doctors.
That’s exactly what happened in the Scottish Parliament today.

Tory leader Douglas Ross, who should be expected to know better,  told Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions: “There are reports today from a leaked document that Glasgow City Council is considering cutting 800 teaching posts. The general secretary of the teaching union the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association said: “This would potentially write off the current generation of young people.”

Was the First Minister aware that a Scottish National Party-run council was considering such a drastic cut in teacher numbers, he asked.

Nicola couldn’t believe her luck.

She told him: “This is, of course, the time of year when we hear lots of reports about the savings options that different councils are considering and when Opposition parties, quite understandably, make hay with that. Very often, those proposals do not proceed. The Parliament’s Official Report will be littered with examples of that.

“I have not seen the detail of those particular proposals. Councils are, of course, autonomous in their areas of responsibility, which is something that parties across the chamber often call on the Scottish Government to respect. As my record shows, and as my Government’s funding to councils demonstrates, I am in favour of more teachers, not fewer.”

But Mr Ross wasn’t having it. The wee football linesman from Moray called for the parliamentary equivalent of VAR.

He said: “The First Minister’s record is of 900 fewer teachers across Scotland, so I am not sure how her rhetoric matches her record. She says that I am standing here making hay. I am not; I am deeply worried that one of the biggest councils in Scotland is considering the loss of 800 teachers.

“If Glasgow City Council went ahead with that, it would reduce school staff by 15 per cent: one in seven teachers in Glasgow would be lost.

Ross and Sturgeon fought out a close match over teachers in the Holyrood parliament.

“That is what happens when the SNP does not fund councils properly. It wastes taxpayers’ money on ferries that do not float and on other pet projects, instead of providing Scottish education and Scottish schools with the support that they need.

“Will the First Minister tell us how many teachers in Scotland are going to lose their jobs as a result of her budget choices and costly mistakes?”

Nicola Sturgeon jinked past him and swiftly switched her terminology from football to horse racing, but promised to answer his questions fully, but later.

She said: “First, on the general issue, I know—and we have seen this week—that Douglas Ross favours riding roughshod over the decisions and powers of democratically elected institutions.”

No one expected her to bring on a substitute that soon, but we were only a minute into the match when  Trans Gender, recently signed from Holland, came on to the park.

He/She hadn’t even had a kick at the ball when Sturgeon slipped back to budgets in general and education in particular, but not before letting the ref know that she appreciated the politics game being played within the rules – “I respect the autonomy of democratically elected institutions,” she told MSPs.

Nicola Sturgeon added: “Turning to budget choices, let me set out the Government’s budget choices. In this financial year, 2022-23, the Government provided £145 million of additional funding to local authorities to employ up to 2,400 more teachers and 500 more classroom assistants.

“That funding is being protected in the budget that we have put forward for the next financial year. Overall, we are increasing the resources that are available to councils by more than £570 million. That is a real-terms increase of £160.6 million.

“Those are the budget choices of this Government. Had we followed the advice of the Conservatives, of course, we would not be able to do all that, because we would have cut taxes for the very richest people in the country.”

It sounded for a moment that a pile of cash would be injected into the teacher transfer market, but the money was more Dumbarton than Dortmund.

Douglas Ross scoffed: “First, I asked Nicola Sturgeon about 800 teacher losses potentially happening in Glasgow. She gave no answer. The next question was how many teachers fear losing their jobs across Scotland as a result of her Government’s budget. She gave no answer again. There are 900 fewer teachers in Scotland since Nicola Sturgeon’s Government came to power. That is the reality.”

The recruitment questions were more Rangers than Real Madrid. Asked for names and numbers, Sturgeon was silent.

Referee Ross said: “Let us look at quotes about the First Minister’s budget. SNP councillor Shona Morrison, the leader of the council umbrella group the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said: “The reality of the situation is that yet again, the essential services Councils deliver have not been prioritised by the Scottish Government.

“That is the reality that councils and councillors, including SNP councillors, are facing across Scotland.”

What they are really facing is a shaky peg in the SNP dressing room. Morrison looks set to be dropped from the SNP women’s team.

Ross was nipping away at Nicola’s ankles.

He said: “Let us remember that, more than six years ago, Nicola Sturgeon made bold promises about education. She said that it would be her number 1 priority.

“She claimed that her Government would close the attainment gap completely, but yesterday her education secretary rubbished Nicola Sturgeon’s promise.”

It seems the Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville had leaked this to Off the Ball:  “I think in reality … that is exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to achieve—to get to the point of zero.”

“Is the education secretary right that the First Minister’s key promise is never going to happen,” asked Holyrood’s high profile whistleblower.

The First Minister looked to the grandstand for support: “Our commitment to substantially eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap by 2026 still stands. I have said that in the Parliament before and I say it again today. I stress the phrase ‘poverty-related attainment gap’.

“Of course, we are also trying to tackle child poverty through something that I think Douglas Ross might have referred to as a pet project earlier: the Scottish child payment, for example.

“That task of tackling child poverty and helping to reduce and substantially eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap would not be as difficult as it is if we did not have a Tory Government pushing more children into poverty every single week.”

Tackling as long as it’s clean is acceptable but pushing is not. Yellow card for Sturgeon. The Presiding Officer, Alison Johnstone, stepped in. She wanted no more time wasting.

The First Minister said: “Let us come back to teachers. The number of primary teachers in our schools is among the highest today that it has been at any time since I was at primary school. The overall teacher pupil ratio is the lowest in the UK. In Scotland right now, there are 7,573 teachers per 100,000 pupils.

“That compares with just 5,734 where the Conservatives are in government in England. Of course, as I said, we are providing £145 million to councils [more finger waving from Johnstone, whose roots are in rugby country] to support additional teachers. Those are our funding choices. That is our record and I am proud to stand on it.”

But Ross thought she should be up before the beaks at the SFA for that performance: “Nicola Sturgeon is proud to see SNP councils considering cutting teacher numbers. She is proud of that. She should be embarrassed if not disgraced.

“Nicola Sturgeon said, ‘Judge me on education’. Well, the education secretary has done exactly that and found that the First Minister makes promises that her Government will not meet. Her failures have left teachers frustrated, disappointed and angry.”

He added: “Today, schools in North Lanarkshire and Moray are on strike. Tomorrow, it is Angus and East Dunbartonshire. Next week, schools in another 10 council areas will go on strike including in Edinburgh. The following week, another 10 are striking, from the Scottish Borders to Aberdeenshire.

“After years of disrupted education because of the Covid pandemic, when the Scottish Government was too quick to shut down schools and limit teaching time, pupils are once again getting a raw deal.

“All of this affects young people’s opportunities and causes real problems for parents. Can the First Minister tell young people and Scottish families whether education will ever be her number one priority?”

However Ms Sturgeon told him: “I will let the people of Scotland continue to judge the record, actions and decisions of the Government.  At a time when the Tories have been slashing budgets for local councils, this Government is increasing council budgets by more than £570 million.

“We are providing £145 million to councils to support the employment of additional teachers.”

Someone up on the gallery (the terracing?) screamed support for the teachers along the lines of “Get her aff”, but Sturgeon was determined to get one more shot in before the whistle: “We would not have been able to do that had we followed Douglas Ross’s advice and cut taxes for the highest paid.

“Instead, we are asking those at the top of the income spectrum in Scotland to pay a little bit more to protect our public services.

“When it comes to pay disputes with teachers, this Government continues to negotiate and to seek settlement. Again, that stands in marked contrast to where the Conservatives are in power.

The Tories, of course, are trying to take away the right of public sector workers to strike. We will continue to seek fair pay deals in the national health service, the teaching profession and elsewhere across our public sector.

“We will continue to take decisions that prioritise education and health, which is in stark contrast to anything and everything that the Scottish Conservatives do.”

But will the SNP win the silverware?  Will this go to extra time? Will they get their Trans rights legislation through? Trans fer more like it. That’s one for First Minister’s Questions next week.

Top of page picture: Playing for Vale of Leven – the Christie Park teachers’ team line up with their “pay up!” placards.

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