Stark reality of national equity fund – third of local schools received nothing
A third of local schools failed to gain a penny from the Scottish government’s £120 million pupil equity fund – despite claims from Holyrood that 95 per cent of all Scottish schools would benefit from the scheme.
Education and families chairman, George Smith, gave the stark warning at the new committee’s first meeting this morning.
The equity fund has been a bone of contention in Shetland for some time, with the £188,000 allocation for the isles falling well short of that given to other local authorities.
The Shetland figure is low because the allocation is based on the number of free school meals that are provided when compared with other more densely populated areas down south.
Money from the pot went directly to schools, as well. Mr Smith is due to discuss governance arrangements for schools, along with other education chiefs from the Northern Alliance, with education secretary John Swinney on Thursday.
Today’s meeting heard Shetland only had a free school meals uptake in 2016/17 of 6.5 per cent against a national average of 17.9 per cent.
It prompted a suggestion from Catherine Hughson that more could be done to ensure there was a greater uptake of free entitlement.
“We did have a discussion about the stigma attached to pupils getting free school meals,” she said.
“There was a project to look at a card system, where pupils wouldn’t be so easily identified because it could be anything on that card. What happened to that project?”
Mr Smith said he understood the work to be ongoing. He told members it had been intended as a “multi-use” card, which would cover other things as well such as transport.
But he added: “I think there might have been some talk around restricting it to transport use.”
That prompted Ms Hughson to wonder if a separate system purely for education might be developed.
“If it’s a case that the whole system won’t work, maybe we should be looking at something for just educational use.”
Mr Smith said it was a good point, and asked children’s services director, Helen Budge, to examine the issue.
Mrs Budge had already highlighted tackling inequalities as a key objective. She highlighted several successes, which included a pilot online payment system for school meals.
Other achievements were the securing of £130,000 funding to provide opportunities for young folk leaving school, and the re-opening of Windybrae and Arheim residential services.
The discussion also focused on the big changes pending within early learning and childcare, which calls for a near doubling of entitlement to 1,140 hours by 2020.
Town councillor Peter Campbell raised questions about cost and staffing.
Quality improvement manager, Audrey Edwards, pointed to information from the Scottish government which said £400 million would be made available to local authorities over the next three years.
“We’ve been given an additional allocation for 2017/18, which is £188,000 of capital and £132,000 of additional revenue. So we are working through how we are going to phase in the expansion,” she said.
A strategic plan will be developed in time to be sent to the Scottish government by September.
Mrs Edwards said a lot of work had been carried out looking at costs and what “additionality” would be available to fund staffing and changes to properties.
“So we don’t know the costs and we don’t know the implications for staff,” Mr Campbell concluded.
“We don’t know them yet,” Mrs Edwards added, “but it is something we are working on.”