The challenge of providing a high quality education service at a time when expenditure is growing faster than the available budget means that change, in some form, must take place.
There is a tendency in education to always reflect upon such an issue from the moral high-ground and simply state that more money must be forthcoming! As the person who is charged with responsibility for a budget of nearly £85 million to deliver education and children’s services for 15,000 children in East Lothian it’s a topic which is constantly at the forefront of my mind.
One of the key factors in managing such a budget is to ensure that everything is absolutely transparent. In East Lothian we have spent a huge amount of time and effort in “opening up” our books – there are no black holes, no smoke or mirrors, no hidden funds. What you see is what we get. When such information is treated as confidential it only goes to feed the suspicion that some groups are being treated more favourably than others. When everyone can see the entire “pot” it becomes very clear that an increase in one area in education must be subsidised from another area within education.
It was with this in mind that we had our first meeting of a Strategic Finance Group for Education. The group has union representatives from the EIS, HAS, AHDS, Unison, SSSTA; three parent representatives from East Lothian Parents’ Councils; three senior elected members; three members of the Education Department management team (including me); and a Finance Department Representative. I had hoped to get a couple of pupil representatives – but perhaps next time.
The group spent all morning reviewing the available budget for the coming two years (2009-2010/2010-2011); identifying and discussing possible areas where savings could be made; and planning for our next meeting. The traditional approach to this process is for management to sit in a darkened room – consider the options, present these options to the administration and then implement them across the authority. This alternative approach turns this on its head by involving the stakeholders at the outset of the process and ensuring that there are no sacred cows such as central services which cannot be offered up for savings. The meeting was exceptionally enlightening as we approached each suggestion with true professionalism and objectivity. As stated earlier we have to make savings if we are to work within our available budget – the challenge is where these savings might be made. By involving those who are closest to the “chalk-face” we begin to build up a picture of how we might work together to ensure that any negative impact upon children is minimised.
The ideas which flowed from the meeting will be followed up over the next three months by firstly identifying the amount of money that can be saved by each option and an associated impact assessment for each option. When we reconvene after the summer we will have produced a list with quantitative and qualitative impacts – this list will then be further considered by the group to identify preferences and recommendations which can then be considered by the administration. The bottom-line -as I reinforced yesterday – is that nothing is off the table in terms of making savings.
One of the key points to emerge was that the process is not as simple as it might seem. Although some areas seem ripe for savings the knock-on impact they have beyond the immediately obvious makes it all the more important that the stakeholders present on the group have an opportunity to have their say.