In an exclusive interview, Councillor Christina Cannon, City Convener for Education and Early Years at Glasgow City Council, speaks to James McEnaney about the cuts to teacher numbers currently facing the city.

When Christina Cannon went to university, she wanted to be a teacher. Then, at the end of her undergraduate period, she decided to move on to a Masters in education policy. Today, she is sitting in front of me as a twice-elected councillor and the convener of the Glasgow City Council education committee.

She is certainly younger than your average councillor and is part of a new, post-indyref generation of politicians whose experiences have been quite different from their predecessors, and whose route into politics was built, above all, on hope.

So how did it feel to vote for a budget that cut teacher numbers?

“No councillor goes into this job wanting to cut teacher numbers and we wouldn't have done it if there was any other option. That's why every political party presented [cuts to] teacher numbers because there was just no other way to slice it this year.

"For me that’s always my starting position: how do we protect staff, teacher numbers, services? But the more [budget discussions] went on, it became more and more clear that that wasn’t going to be possible with a £107m budget gap to fill.

"It’s not enjoyable. Nobody found it enjoyable. I’d be concerned if anybody found it enjoyable. But we’ve got a legal duty to balance a budget, so that is where I’m coming from now – there has to be a minimisation of the impact.”

If that all sounds incredibly grim, Ms Cannon seems to agree: “There’s no spin to say it’s a positive thing.”

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As she herself points out, I am well used to politicians and press officers trying to convince me that the negative impacts of their decisions either do not exist or can be almost entirely addressed. When I suggest that there doesn’t seem to be any of that sort of attitude in Glasgow right now, or any attempt to convince people that this will all be ok, she does not disagree.

Even the politicians don’t seem to think that politics can make this crisis look any better.

But that doesn’t mean that politics doesn’t come into it, as becomes clear when our conversation moves on to the actual processes behind the budget. Having told me that it "became more and more clear" that teacher numbers would have to be cut, I ask Ms Cannon when that realisation took place?

It is, after all, extremely obvious that councillors of all parties knew that teacher cuts were coming - but for how long did they know?

And why, I add, didn’t any of the council budget documents make clear that teacher cuts were an inevitability when, to use her own phrase, “there was just no other way to slice it”?

Those materials talk instead about ‘service reform’, but if cuts to teacher numbers were such a necessary and non-negotiable part of that process, then why is that specific point not made clear?

“Yeah – I don’t know," she says. "It’s very clear it was discussed at the cross-party working group.”

I put it to her that, by her own presentation of events, councillors all knew that teacher cuts were coming - yet nobody else seemed to be aware? So that means that she knew, going in to the budget vote, that she would be cutting teacher numbers, but none of her constituents, for example, would have known?

“They’ll know afterwards,” she replies.

It is at this point that a council press officer intervenes, arguing that “there was no budget” until the official vote on February 15, and telling me that every party talked about teacher cuts during their speeches as part of the budget meeting.

Ms Cannon tells me that they “can’t fit every bit of narrative into a budget document”, which is why it’s all coded instead, and argues that they couldn’t be specific about the actual number of teachers being cut each year because “teacher numbers are tied to other options.”

The fact remains, however, that councillors knew they were cutting teacher numbers, but even the documents subsequently made available by the council don’t make that clear, instead referring abstractly to ‘education service reform’ – and this is despite the fact that, as we now know, those cuts were going to start almost immediately through changes to school staffing formulas.

Ultimately, Ms Cannon argues that the closed nature of the discussions in the cross-party working group is necessary because “councillors need space to discuss things confidentially.” There are, she tells me, always options put forward that are immediately rejected because they are “political unpalatable”. In the past, of course, that included cuts to teacher numbers.

She says that past leaks of discussions and options from the cross-party group have been “entirely unhelpful” because some proposals look terrible “out of context” and others were never going to be adopted in the first place.

“One of the strengths of the budget discussions this year was actually those discussions were kept confidential.”

I can’t help pointing out that this is quite a striking thing to say, especially in the context of the discussion we’ve been having.

“It’s confidentiality. Councillors need space to discuss options confidentially until a budget is agreed. I don’t think that’s a striking thing to say. I think it is the same in all workplaces and then have those meaningful discussions afterwards.”

But she insists that her administration is “not trying to hide anything”, and points out – not entirely unreasonably – that she would not have agreed to the interview if that were not the case.

At this point we move on to the impact of the cuts.

I explain that a loss of 450 teachers, as reported, would lead to an 8% reduction in staffing levels.

It would see Glasgow teacher numbers fall to their lowest level since 2017, and even take them below the figures from back in 2008, despite pupil numbers being at their highest level in 20 years.

I put it to Ms Cannon that cutting that reducing number of teachers, in the years after a pandemic, in Scotland’s most deprived and probably most complicated city, sounds like a recipe for disaster, and ask if she accepts that there will be major, noticeable, negative consequences for schools and children.

“I think reducing teacher numbers will have consequences, absolutely – but my priority is minimising those consequences and that impact in whatever way I can.”

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She goes on to claim that although the 172 teacher cuts for the coming year are already set, the further cuts planned for years two and three could be adjusted depending on “loads of factors”.

“We regularly speak to government about more money. There could be a change of government at UK level. We could be given more powers for income maximisation. That’s not to say there would be no savings from education.”

The problem, of course, is that these mitigation plans all seem to hinge on more money appearing. Indeed, Ms Cannon repeats that the council will look at “income maximisation and extra money from government” – but she doesn’t make me believe that she believes that this is going to happen. In previous years there has been a sense that these budget nightmares would be solved by last-minute cash injections, but what we are seeing now feels different.

I do, however, believe that she understands the implications of the cuts – even if she could never fully admit it to a journalist – when she says: “This is not a good thing, but the best we can do is minimise the impact. There is so good to come of this. I am very well aware of that.”

Of course, it’s easier to talk a good game that it is to play one, and I point out that a repeated criticism I’ve heard from teachers is that the council simply is not listening when they try to explain the serious consequences of the cuts being imposed on them.

Current headteachers, I remind her, have been speaking out about their fears that they will not be able to keep their pupils safe, especially in circumstances where the headteacher of a primary school is the only one not teaching for most or all of the time.

Is this, I ask, the first she is hearing of primary schools being left with just the headteacher not fully class-committed?

“No. It’s not.”

There are, she tells me, different mechanisms by which teachers’ representatives can raise concerns (although she isn’t directly involved in them), and she says that “a conversation should be going on between headteachers and [council] officers”.

Nonetheless, the council is currently introducing a change that will, according to headteachers, lead to primary schools across the city having only one person not class-committed for significant periods of time.

Ms Cannon responds that she will “commit to work with staff, trade unions and officers to try and mitigate those specific safety concerns.”

And if schools are being put in a position where only one member of staff is not class committed, and headteachers are saying that this will make schools unsafe, will the council reconsider the staffing levels?

“Oh absolutely,” she says without hesitation.

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As we approach the end of the interview, I recap with Ms Cannon the warnings from the Association of Headteachers and Deputes Scotland (AHDS), which represents 90% of primary school teachers, and their criticism of how the council has thus far handled this whole process.

The repeated accusation that the council has not been listening to teachers, and therefore not fully appreciating the damage that the cuts taking place right now will do, clearly strikes a nerve, and she accepts that work will have to be done to improve the communications with teachers and parents groups.

“Yes,” she says. “We absolutely need to do better to at least let them know that we are willing to listen.”