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Schools face 4-day-week

As Scotland braces itself for the full impact of spending cuts, officials from a cash-strapped local authority have put forward proposals to save money by introducing a four-day week in all primary and secondary schools.

The suggestion by North Ayrshire Council would require parents taking an extra day off work, but critics have slammed the move as “stupid” and “a sad state of affairs”.

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Councils, quangos and other public bodies are having to make deep cuts to plug the UK Government’s budget deficit. Economists believe the public sector may be facing a decade of expenditure reductions.

In Labour-led North Ayrshire, councillors last week agreed a budget which included £8.9 million of “efficiency” savings. The package, which covers 2011-12, is the first step towards bridging a £38m funding gap by 2014.

In anticipation of more swingeing cuts in the future, senior council officials have drawn up a range of “strategic options” to slash the school budget.

One of the doomsday scenarios, contained in an official budget briefing document, is to reduce the school week from five days to four. Unions were last month briefed on the plan, which officials believe could save £2.3m, while councillors were presented with the suggestion at their budget meeting last week.

It is understood that proposals, which could mean all schools closing on Mondays, will be brought forward next year.

As it stands, the law does not lay down the length of a school week. Under regulations dating from 1975, schools are required to be “open” for pupils for a minimum of 190 days a year.

How that statutory minimum is interpreted is a matter for councils.

According to legislation from 1980, Scottish Ministers may “modify” this regulation following an application by a local authority.

But while councils have flexibility over the working week, the idea of closing schools on Mondays or Fridays appears fraught with difficulties.

Such a move would result in parents having to take time off work, and may result in additional pressures being placed on other council services.

The plan confirms that once-unthinkable ideas are now being considered by councils.

The local authority in North Ayrshire, in the same “strategic options” document, is exploring a proposal for primary school to begin when children turn six. However, this policy may require a change in the law to be enacted.

Council officials have also floated the idea of bringing all primary class sizes up to the legal maximum by 2013, a move that could save £576,000.

Similarly, Renfrewshire Council plans to bring non-qualified teachers into the classroom to teach primary school pupils.

In Edinburgh City Council, a proposal is being considered to scrap all bursars and reduce the number of deputy heads within secondaries.

Paul Arkison, a regional organiser for the GMB Scotland trade union, said of the four-day week plan: “The mere thought of this proposal shows you the sad state of affairs this council is in. Parts of North Ayrshire have some of the highest levels of unemployment and the worst areas of deprivation in Scotland. To put school children on a four-day week could threaten their educational development and would cause chaos for working parents.”

SNP MSP Kenny Gibson said: “I am astonished that Labour-controlled North Ayrshire Council is considering a reduction in the school working week from five to four days.

“The law makes it clear that pupils should have a minimum of 190 days a year in school. A four-day week would mean a 47.5 week year, something I doubt would be welcomed by parents, teachers or pupils. Educationally I can see no merit in this proposal which appears to be finance driven.”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association said: “There would have to be consultation with both parents and employees about a four-day week. However, this proposal would be detrimental to the education of young people, who would be expected to concentrate for extra hours every day.

“There is huge merit in formal education being deferred until the age of six, but this year would have to be replaced by high-quality nursery education, rather than being a cost-cutting exercise.”

Stephanie Herd, the North Ayrshire branch secretary of Unison, said: “The four-day week is a daft idea. I hope elected members realise how ridiculous it is for pupils and for working parents.”

Carol Kirk, corporate director of education at North Ayrshire Council, said: “The indicative requirements for the financial year 2013-14 included a wide range of early options which may be considered by the council in the coming years. No decisions have been taken on these options which are for exploration only at this stage.

“The option for children to start school at age six has been widely discussed by education professionals and is already in operation in many other European countries. The option to deliver the statutory 25 hours of education per week over four rather than five days is also being explored by other local authorities.”

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