North Lanarkshire Council has been bluntly told by teachers union the EIS that it can’t use a special hardship fund for normal school services.
The North Lanarkshire wing of the EIS said it is “a matter of deep regret” that funds intended for disadvantaged children have been caught up in a war of words between the Scottish Government and the council.
The developing row centres on the Scottish Government’s Pupil Equity Fund (PEF) which is intended to bypass council bureaucracy and allow head teachers to use it to the benefit of disadvantaged pupils.
The union’s intervention comes on top of severe criticism of the council from the local MSP and a blunt warning from the Scottish Government that all the PEF cash for North Lanarkshire could be in jeopardy if the fund is used to pay for normal services.
A major concern is that the council could be aiming to use cash clearly earmarked for discretionary use by head teachers to prop up services that would otherwise be cut because of its own budget decisions.
But the embattled council leader Councillor Jim Logue insists council policy is entirely in keeping with the Scottish Government’s intentions.
Council deputy leader Councillor Paul Kelly said: “Equity funding isn’t equity funding if the Scottish Government takes £27 million away from the council.”
With the Holyrood administration at loggerheads with the authority over how the cash should be spent newly-elected local EIS president Lorraine McBride has stepped in to urge both sides to find a solution to their dispute as soon as possible – for the good of the children.
She complains some of the country’s most disadvantaged children could lose out if the Scottish Government and the council can’t resolve their differences.
But at the same time she says the union’s clear position is that PEF funds should not be “simply allocated by councils to compensate for other cuts to core budgets”.
And she says her membership insists on “rigorous monitoring” of what the money is used for.
Ms McBride said: “The local Association demanded assurances that any additional resourcing from the Scottish Attainment Challenge, of which the Pupil Equity Fund is now a key part, was not simply allocated by councils to compensate for other cuts to core budgets.
“That remains the clear position of the Institute locally and nationally.”
Councillor Logue said: “We absolutely agree with the Scottish Government that head teachers should make decisions about their own schools.
“That is why, working with head teachers, we have created a new enhanced support post, which will involve increased skills, and we will make these enhanced posts available in September.
“The council will fund the required training fully, it will be up to head teachers to decide if they wish to take advantage of this resource and most support this approach.
“We have chosen to work with school leaders to develop options and support them fully in closing the attainment gap.
“That is why we decided to top up the pupil equity fund by a further £622,000 in addition to the money offered by the Scottish Government.
“We have been willing to work with the government to discuss some of the issues raised by the pupil equity fund and have done so in good faith.
“However, good faith has to work two ways, and we are now in receipt of a letter from the Scottish Government threatening to withhold the entire fund for North Lanarkshire.
“It is entirely unacceptable, and disproportionate, for the government to play games with young people’s futures in this way while our discussions are ongoing.”
Motherwell & Wishaw MSP Clare Adamson has described the council’s planned use of equity funding as ‘abhorrent’.
She said: “The fund was set up to go directly to head teachers in the most deprived areas to close the attainment gap, not for the council to use it to mask their own poor decision making and cuts.
“I’ll be watching closely to ensure that this money is used as intended and I know that pupils, parents, guardians and teachers will be watching closely too.”
But Councillor Logue has challenged Ms Adamson to contact head teachers to find if they have any issues about the planned use of the funding.