North Lanarkshire Council is accused of ’emotional blackmail’ in plan to raid Pupil Equity Fund
Herald Scotland, by Andrew Denholm
One of Scotland’s largest councils is planning to re-allocate more than £1million from a flagship Scottish Government fund that was earmarked for primary schools in the most deprived parts of the country.
North Lanarkshire Council told its primary headteachers last week in an email that it wanted them to agree to hand over £1.3m from an allocation of £8.8m from the Pupil Equity Fund (PEF).
The heads were told the money – which amounts to 15 per cent of the total – would be used to pay for existing classroom assistants and an administrative team at local authority headquarters, which have been threatened by wider cuts.
In a meeting with school staff it was even suggested that if heads did not agree with the plan, then it was likely some classrooms assistants could lose their jobs, prompting suggestions of “emotional blackmail”.
There has also been a suggestion schools could use some of the PEF money to pay for existing swimming lessons for pupils and to subsidise breakfast clubs.
The plan is in direct contravention to government guidelines which explicitly state all the money should go direct to schools with headteachers deciding where best to spend it in partnership with councils.
It added that allocations from the PEF are in addition to baseline funding and should not be used to subsidise existing services.
The move was communicated to heads by council assistant chief executive Isabelle Boyd. A source close to Education Secretary John Swinney said the money was intended to help pupils raise their attainment and was not to be used in a “political game”.
The source continued: “This unacceptable example shows why it’s vital that headteachers are the decisions makers on how the money is used.
“The council have engineered a cut and are now engaged in moral blackmail against teachers simply so they can keep control of the purse strings.
“That delivers nothing new for the pupil and will do nothing to raise attainment. They are even trying to force this through in the next couple of weeks, making it impossible for schools to consult with parents and the community on how the money could best be used.
“It simply isn’t on and ministers are not going to stand by and watch this council rob children of the educational chances they need and deserve.”
The move has also prompted concern from the Association of Headteachers and Deputes Scotland (AHDS) which represents the primary sector.
Greg Dempster, general secretary of the AHDS, has already contacted national schools body Education Scotland and the Scottish Government over the development.
In a letter to members, Mr Dempster said: “The action proposed in North Lanarkshire appears to be entirely at odds with the conditions attached to the funding.
“As such, and as this is such a high profile policy area, it seems very likely that the Scottish Government will seek to enforce the rules as they stand.
“In the meantime this leaves you, as school leaders, in a very difficult position. I have written to the director to ensure she is aware of the concern and uncertainty that has been expressed to us and will keep you up to date with any further developments.”
A North Lanarkshire spokesman said: “The council has been working with groups of head teachers to create a choice of interventions aimed at closing the attainment gap.
“The Scottish Government’s own executive agency, Education Scotland, has confirmed that classroom assistants have, in their words, ‘high cost and limited impact’.
“That is why we have created a new enhanced support role, which will be available to head teachers in September 2017 to allow for upskilling subject to head teachers’ requirements.
“We agree with the Scottish Government that head teachers are best placed to make decisions around the support needed in their schools. It is notable that the vast majority of head teachers concur with the approach taken, which reinforces North Lanarkshire’s position as an authority which works collaboratively with school leaders, the Scottish Government and others to successfully close the attainment gap.
“In fact, the council’s chief executive, Paul Jukes, met the Scottish Government’s director-general for education and justice, Paul Johnston, as recently as last Friday to discuss the challenges we face.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launched the Scottish Attainment Challenge in February 2015 to bring a greater sense of urgency and priority to the issue of closing the attainment gap between rich and poor.
The Scottish Attainment Challenge is focused on improvements in literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing in specific areas of Scotland and is funded through the £750m Attainment Scotland Fund.
The fund is targeted on supporting pupils in the local authorities which have the highest concentrations of deprivation including Glasgow, Dundee, Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire, North Ayrshire, Clackmannanshire, North Lanarkshire, East Ayrshire and Renfrewshire.
Each school receives an allotted share through the PEF which is to be spent at the discretion of teachers and school leaders.
North Lanarkshire received £8.8m under the scheme with 120 primaries and 7,000 pupils to benefit.
The key principles of the fund set out by the Scottish Government are that headteachers “must have access to the full amount” and that it must enable schools to deliver activities which are “clearly additional to those which were already planned”.
The council is also in breach of further guidance which states that headteachers and local authorities should work in partnership to agree the use of the funding.