Letter from Edinburgh - 16th September 2016

Following Parliament's return after recess, Tavish writes about key announcements for crofters and the future of Scottish education. 

Two highly significant statements were made by ministers to the Scottish Parliament this week. The first from agriculture minister Fergus Ewing was a welcome recognition that the £178 million computer system to make Common Agriculture Policy payments to crofters and farmers, has not worked.

Crofters normally receive these payments around Christmas. The 2015 payments only arrived this summer. Some have still not been paid. It was an utter shambles. To Mr Ewing’s credit he is not promising all will be well in the future. I suspect he knows the computer is bust. So he has said that there will be a loan available to every crofter who gets the Basic Payment Scheme with applications closing in October and payments in November.

Crofters will receive a government letter setting out what their BPS entitlement is based on what they have been paid this year. It is essential that crofters can question this year’s payment. The government downgraded large areas of Shetland croft land for no understandable reason so an appeal is essential.

There is much to get right here. It is a national disgrace that the government has spent £178 million on a computer for 14,000 crofters and farmers across Scotland. Parliament and Audit Scotland will continue to look at why that has happened. But the government’s principal task is to get CAP money to crofters at the right time this year.

The other significant statement was from education minister John Swinney, about the governance of schools. This means who has responsibility for education in Shetland and elsewhere.

The government wants more responsibility for schools. That without doubt is a challenge to the role of local councils. At the moment councils receive money for delivering education in their area. It is up to the SIC how many primary and secondary schools they have across the islands. It is also up to them to decide the number of teachers although that room for manoeuvre has been limited by a government edict.

Mr Swinney is now consulting on a new funding formula. Instead of the SIC receiving money, a needs-based funding system is to be introduced. That sounds like central government directly funding schools.

In addition, the attainment funding will be based on the number of free school meals that are taken in Shetland schools. That means money raised within Shetland from widening out council tax bands will leave the islands to be used in Glasgow and other areas where the take up of free school meals is far higher.

It will be very important for Shetland to look closely at this government policy. There is real financial pressure in every school. I saw that when visiting my son’s new secondary in Inverness this week.

Every Shetland teacher explains the reality of the financial pressures that exist within Shetland education. So we all need to work together on making sure that a new funding system for our schools does not worsen the situation pupils, teachers and parents currently face. 

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