The debate could not be more timely. Only yesterday, Councillor Stephen McCabe, COSLA’s education spokesperson, and Councillor Gail Macgregor, COSLA’s finance spokesperson, highlighted that, once Scottish Government funding is taken into account, local authorities have already had to spend an extra £145 million in order to deal with the additional costs of the pandemic.
We all know that councils have transformed their services and, as I speak, are preparing to reopen schools in August. I had hoped that the joint work between the Scottish Government and our local authorities would give more certainty about plans for the autumn. However, it is clear that there is still a massive challenge there, given the mixed messaging that has emerged from the Scottish Government. The Deputy First Minister says something one day, and the First Minister says another the next. John Swinney had implied that we would see blended learning happening until Christmas. However, that was shot down by the First Minister when she said that all school students need face-to-face lessons with teachers.
We all know that our councils face an impossible situation. After more than a decade of underfunding, they have been working hard to implement the Scottish Government’s policy guidance on reopening schools, but without any indication that it is committed to funding their plans. I am worried, because time to get that situation right is running out. We need Scottish leadership on it now.
Major challenges will be involved in meeting the social distancing requirements, which will affect capacity in our schools at a time when many are already at capacity. Then there is the issue of the additional staff who will be required. If we are to see students being able to get back to school at the scale that will enable their parents to get back to work, which all parents are now beginning to think about, that will all cost more money. At the same time, we must see social distancing, support and safety measures being delivered—not just for the children, but for their teachers and vital support staff. We will need extra staff to clean our schools and possibly to manage and clean the additional buildings that will need to be brought into use if teaching is to be delivered.
As Jackie Baillie said, we are already seeing school students losing out because of lack of support and lack of information technology kit. My understanding is that, in Edinburgh alone, the plans that are being considered are estimated to cost £12 million. However, from reading the headlines in today’s
, I understand that John Swinney is not happy with those proposals. What is Edinburgh’s authority to do? No funding commitments have been made that would let it make more radical proposals that would meet the needs of teachers, parents and school students. There is a real challenge there.
Let us consider the situation in other areas. Fife is looking at a potential gap of £15 million in its budget for opening up schools and continuing free school meals. Midlothian’s current estimate for the same is £2 million. That might not sound like so much, but its overall budget is smaller and £2 million is still a lot of money. To top that, Midlothian has been billed £1.5 million by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, even though Midlothian will not be using any of the SQA’s services this year.
Then there is the challenge that will be involved in arranging enough school buses to achieve the required social distancing. Councils have been raising that issue for weeks now. For example, instead of the 30 buses that it would usually run, Midlothian might need 90. A reality check will be needed if we are to get such plans in place.