A CONTROVERSIAL proposal to slash teaching time in Highland schools by two-and-a-half hours every week in a bid to save £3.2 million has been criticised as a “savage” cut by a trade union.
The local authority has launched a major public consultation seeking the views of residents as it sets out to identify the £11.9 million worth of savings needed between 2013 and 2015 to balance its books.
A range of possible savings were published on the council’s website today and public meetings will be hosted by finance leader Dave Fallows who has also pledged to use social media and the internet in the exercise.
Like a previous budget consultation two years ago the SNP-led council administration has invited comment on services like education and schools, car parking charges and grass cutting before it makes the final decisions early in 2013.
However, a suggestion to shorten the primary school day by 30 minutes and cut teaching time has angered Andrew Stewart, of the teachers union EIS, who has warned it would lead to a “considerable” number of job losses for teachers and harm pupils’ education.
At present P1 to P3 pupils are taught for 22-and-a-half hours per week but children aged P4 and upwards in about 200 Highland schools are in class for 25 hours.
Under strict national guidelines teachers can only teach for 22-and-a-half hours so additional staff are employed to cover the extra time for the older pupils, which cannot be done by the normal class teacher.
The council has proposed cutting teaching time for pupils aged P4 plus by two-and-a-half hours per week to save £3.2 million per year on staff costs, much to Mr Stewart’s disgust.
“It is a fairly savage cut on pupils’ education,” he said. “I am concerned about our members’ jobs and the educational value which would be lost to pupils. I am concerned about job losses and there is definitely going to be pressure on the remaining teachers. Parents will have to make their voices heard in the consultation and have a think about what the implications would be for their children.”
Mr Stewart, who is the union’s Highland secretary, said the move would hit staff who teach subjects like art, music or foreign languages in primary schools.
He said a cut in teaching time had been mooted prior to the 2010 budget consultation but was dropped before it began.
“A lot of our members might have heard rumours and will be on the phone to me because it is their jobs that will be going, it is as simple as that. We need to have serious discussions with the council.”
In the consultation document, which can be read on www.highland.gov.uk, taxpayers are asked if they would support a move to start the school day later, finish earlier or extend the morning and lunchtime breaks if teaching time was cut to make a “significant” financial saving.
Councillor Fallows, the finance, housing and resources committee chairman, denied teachers’ jobs were under threat.
“There are absolutely no intentions of any compulsory redundancies,” said Councillor Fallows, although he admitted the workforce could be reduced through “shrinkage” if staff move on.
Councillor Fallows questioned the productiveness of the current two-and-half hours of teaching outwith the “core” curriculum and said he looked forward to the feedback from parents, teachers and trade unions.
Opposition leader Carolyn Wilson said the Independent councillors would oppose any teaching cut if the quality of education was threatened.
“The cumulative effect of this two-and-a-half hours lost will be significant and if that is going to be detrimental to children’s education that is not going to be something we would support,” she said.
Public meetings to discuss the consultation will be held in Fort William, Wick, Aviemore, Dingwall, Durness, Lochcarron, Milton, Inverness, Brora and Nairn during September and October.