Concerns have been raised over what impact proposed changes to education funding could have on schools in Shetland.
A radical shake-up of the national education system aimed at closing the attainment gap between students from wealthy areas and those from deprived areas were announced by education secretary John Swinney.
Over the next five years funding will be raised to £750 million through the Scottish Attainment Challenge. This money is likely to target parts of the country with “the greatest intensity of children living in poverty” – areas which also have substantially lower levels of attainment. This was a central policy in the SNP’s manifesto prior to the May elections.
The allocation of these funds, according to the Education Delivery Plan published last week, will be based on a formula relating to the quantity of free school meals provided to underprivileged students.
This suggestion has sparked fears that Shetland’s school funding could be reduced given its relatively low ratio of free school meals provision (888 in the 2015/16 year, including all P1-P3 pupils).
George Smith, depute chairman of the council’s education and families committee, said: “We would probably need to work for some kind of island-proofing on this plan.”
Mr Smith said that he “welcomed efforts to close the attainment gap” but felt that the plan had “a lack of detail on how it would impact areas like Shetland.”
He added: “There are a lot of factors the government would need to consider here, such as the rurality and the quantity of small schools.
“It’s not like central Scotland where there are clusters of deprivation. It’s more discrete and not as easily identified but it does exist.”
Mr Smith said that it was too early to say how education budgets would be affected and therefore too early to speculate on whether school closures would be back on the agenda.
He added: “We need to make all the representations that we can. We’ll be working to make sure that we can get the best deal that we can for Shetland.”
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott also had “real concerns” about the impact of the plan on Shetland.
He said: “This could potentially put money at risk. There is no question that Shetland will not benefit from that kind of crude funding formula.
“What we need is a plan which accepts the difficulties of funding education in rural areas.”
Mr Scott also expressed concerns about another key point contained in Mr Swinney’s document, which suggests the transfer of power and responsibility from local authorities to the schools themselves.
This will be achieved by devolving funding powers and decision-making to headteachers and communities, allowing schools to have a greater sense of autonomy.
A particularly radical aspect of these plans will see millions of pounds of funding given directly to headteachers, permitting important decisions to be made at school level.
Mr Scott worried that headteachers would have to deal with increased administrative duties because of this.
He said: “Certainly, having spoken to a lot of teachers and headteachers about this, there is a lot of worry.
“School support has already been cut back. Would they have to employ an accountant to deal with the added workload?”
However, Mr Scott reiterated that none of this was set in stone by calling the plans “ambiguous”, adding that “none of this is yet clear.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “As our delivery plan sets out, the additional £100 million raised annually from council tax reforms (from the 2017-18 financial year onwards) will be allocated directly to schools, based on the number of children in primaries and S1-3 secondaries who meet the eligibility criteria for free school meals. That will include eligible children in Shetland.
“There are other sources of funding available to Shetland and they have recently been awarded £45,700 from the Innovation Fund to raise attainment in schools.”
The spokesperson added: “This government has amended legislation to ensure that Scotland has broad eligibility for free school meals. We use a range of information to tell us about the prevalence of poverty and disadvantage in our communities to make sure resources go where they are needed most.
“Consequently, over 95% of schools will receive additional funding to support children and young people from poorer backgrounds.”