Council's teacher cuts to be shelved after threat of £4.5m penalty

To plug the funding gap, council tax is set to rise by 5%.

East Ayrshire Council’s teacher cuts to be shelved after threat of £4.5m penalty iStock

East Ayrshire teacher numbers are set remain the same after it was revealed the council would be hit with £4.5m in penalties if it went ahead with plans mooted in January.

The education service had been looking at cutting 21 FTE (full-time equivalent) teaching posts, in line with the falling number of pupils and maintaining the pupil/teacher ratios.

But the Scottish Government, which has promised to increase teacher numbers, has stepped in, moving away from the previous formula to demand that councils maintain the same number of teachers they had in September 2022.

As a result the cabinet is to consider an increase in council tax by 5%, up from the 3% proposed last month, with a Band D property paying £1,487.44, an increase of just over £70.

Rents, garage and lock-up rents will increase by 4%.

The proposed budget will maintain a freeze on all charges it makes, other than those which are set nationally.

However, fees relating to funerals and burials will go up, but not until April 2024.

The teacher numbers decision means that the council will only be looking to save £2.82m from its own services this year, just over a third of the £8m budget gap.

They will ask the East Ayrshire Health and Social Care Partnership to make £3.732m worth of savings in the next year.

But Joe McLachlan, the council’s finance chief, warned that the change to the staffing formula will impact plans for next year’s budget, which he said is expected to be worse than this year.

Despite having pre-purchased 80% of gas and electricity for 2023/24 and 50% for 2024/25, electricity will cost 54% more in the coming year, with gas costing 17% more.

The council has proposed using £1m of the outstanding £1.7m from the Scottish Government to cover the increase in energy costs.

Many of the savings are being made through service reviews and not filling job vacancies, although some filled jobs will go.

Identified savings include:

  • Review of central school support including outdoor provision, staff travel and other activities – £100,000
  • Finance and ICT service redesign – £283,000
  • Human Resources redesign – £76,000
  • Winter service redesign – £100,000
  • Catering staff level review – £75,000
  • Increase charges for specialist education services – £100,000
  • Relocation of Foregate automated public toilet to Cumnock and closure of Tanyard toilets – £50,000

In a report to the cabinet, Mr McLachlan stated that the £1.25m saving relating to pupil-teacher numbers would have ended up costing the council money.

At the time, the council had understood that there would be flexibility given to authorities around teacher numbers and had proposed the cutting of 21 FTE teacher posts to reflect the falling number of pupils in the authority.

However, after this meeting, the Scottish Government made it clear its commitment to grow teacher numbers and sent councils a series of conditions attached to the financial settlement.

This included a change to the formula for teacher numbers. Rather than continue using pupil/teacher ratios, the new condition will fix teacher numbers based on full-time equivalent figures.

The council has been told it will have to maintain the number of FTE teachers at September 2022 levels, as well as look to maintain classroom support levels that are to be published in March.

They will also have to offer probationer teachers a one-year placement and ensure there is no reduction in the number of pupil learning hours delivered by teachers in the school week.

Failing to meet these conditions could lead to a penalty of around £4.5m a year.

Mr McLachlan said: “A budget gap of £1.25m now existed with only a matter of days to close the gap before the council meeting on February 23 to approve the Revenue Budget and to set council tax levels for 2023/24.”

He said that the short timescale means that no alternatives were able to be proposed and that the option to increase council tax by 5%, would enable them to bridge the gap.

The Scottish Government decision means that the education budget, which had already been protected from the same level of cuts as other departments, would now only face savings of 0.5%, compared to an overall 4.2% across the council.

Mr McLachlan added that education is the council’s largest service budget, but has been given the smallest relative reduction and that in the future it would limit where the council will be able to make the savings.

He said that the conditions placed on teacher numbers means that ‘substantial elements of the Council’s largest service budget is, to all intents and purposes, ring-fenced which will cause serious challenges in trying to balance the budget in future years.”

Earlier this week, the council agreed to move around £5m into its uncommitted reserves ahead of the budget. It has also received a further £1.7m from the Scottish Government.

The remainder of that funding, plus the £50,000 brought in by the council tax increased will be subject to an invitation to councillors to consider options.

Another £250,000 is being earmarked from the uncommitted reserves to provide the summer programme for those with additional support needs.

The cabinet will also consider the creation of an Innovation Fund – a spend to save approach that will seek to develop new ways of working to lower expenditure in the future.

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