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10% cuts to education budgets and school closure proposals for Conwy rejected

Conwy County Council

A COUNCILLOR, who has repeatedly campaigned for schools to be closed, proposed slashing the education budget by 10%. But Abergele member Paul Luckock’s suggestion was labelled “nonsensical” by Conwy County Council’s cabinet member for education Julie Fallon at a finance meeting this week.

Despite widespread criticism from fellow councillors and calls from parents for his resignation, Cllr Luckock continues to push his “robust” view that the county has too many schools and that some of them should close to plug a £25 million black hole in the authority’s budget for 2024/25.

A range of service cuts have been proposed, but schools, struggling post-COVID, have already faced 5% cuts in the last financial year, leading to staff redundancies. Cllr Fallon slammed Cllr Luckock’s proposals and said children and schools were already overstretched, insisting the plans would cause the most vulnerable children to suffer more, including the impoverished and those with extra needs.

But Cllr Luckock said he had made his views clear to Cllr Fallon and director of education Lowri Brown. “As colleagues will know, I often have quite robust disagreements with Julie and Lowri.

“But I always think that we are going in the right direction. Often it is just not fast enough for me. That maybe says more about me than it does about them.”

He said: “I invite cabinet and the appropriate officers to consider reporting back on a reduction of 10% of school budgets, 8% to be allocated to the overall corporate resource gap and 2% to a centrally held reserve for a schools transformation strategy, to include, where appropriate, federation, amalgamation, and closure of schools that assist all learners that gives appropriate priority to Welsh language teaching and the specific needs of rural communities.”

Cllr Luckock then asked Conwy’s head of finance to confirm that this proposal would see Conwy claw back £6.053m in savings and a further £1.513m for the reserve to fund his proposed restructure, claiming Conwy had 2,900 unfilled places in its schools.

He then proposed a 0.1% council tax increase was ringfenced to protect library opening hours, citing the importance of protecting the service, claiming yet-to-surface plans to reduce library hours would affect the vulnerable.

Councillors threw out his proposals but not before cabinet member for education Cllr Julie Fallon once again slammed the idea.

“I will start by saying I would be absolutely, completely against a 10% reduction in schools (budgets),” said Cllr Fallon.

“I think it’s very easy to sit here and talk about percentages, but we need to talk about the reality of what that means.

“Schools are massively under pressure, not just from the reductions that we are going to make as a local authority, and they completely appreciate that they need to contribute to this black hole that we have. Headteachers are completely clear on that point, but we need to be sensible about what that is going to be.

“They already have the impact of inflation. For some schools, there is a reduction in (pupil) numbers, (and consequently) a reduction in grants. That is a significant impact before we come anywhere near this reduction, hundreds of thousands (of pounds), this to some of the larger secondary schools.

“But I just wanted to highlight what 10% means. For one of our largest secondary schools, that’s a £615,000 reduction. That’s nearly £590 per pupil in that school. At primary it works out close to £410 per pupil.

“I am not happy in any way to support figures like that because what you have to appreciate is what that means. We are talking about safeguarding. When you need schools to safeguard our children, which unfortunately, in the times we are living in, post COVID, with the cost-of-living crisis, safeguarding issues are on the increase. These are the areas that will be impacted by a cut of 10% that Paul’s (Cllr Luckock) proposing, reduced support for children with learning and emotional well-being issues, which again we all know (has increased) post COVID.”

Cllr Fallon then referred to schools making staff redundant, something that has already happened following the 5% education cuts imposed by Conwy County Council last year.

Cllr Fallon also argued that 10% cuts would lead to a £3m redundancy bill.

“There will be an impact on outcomes, staff retention, and if we ask more and put more pressure on staff with much larger class sizes with fewer teaching assistants to support with the teaching and learning of our young people, then we are going to struggle to retain those staff, struggle to retain headteachers. We’ve had a number of headteachers resign so far this year because of the implications of the budget and the pressures out there,” she said.

“We need to find the balance that means whilst it is going to be difficult regardless… We need to find what that balance is, which means schools can survive with, I want to say the least worst impact, but…. poverty… I mean the poverty we are seeing. I see as a parent. I hear about kids my children are friends with. I know of children who are giving other kids food at lunchtime because their family don’t meet the threshold for free school dinners because they work.

“Thankfully all our primary children have free school meals. We make that reduction as low as possible. I would like to see it (the education cuts) at the 5% that has been indicated.”

She added, “Paul talks about wanting to protect the libraries, and absolutely, I fully support how important libraries are, but let’s hear about our children and how we protect them and make our schools sustainable, and he says about Welsh language and rural schools. If you are talking about a 10% reduction, the formula is the formula. You can’t just protect specific areas of that. It’s been a long time going through democracy to make changes like that, so it really isn’t as simple as just standing here today and saying well let’s do a 10% reduction. No absolutely, it’s not going to work.”

She said, “The final point I’d make is the implications of that would be a redundancy bill of about £3m. Where is that money coming from? It just seems nonsensical.”

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