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Highland budget: Primary school principal teacher posts to go as councillors clash over £66m shortfall

The 2024-25 budget was agreed by a majority of councillors in Inverness today.

Education was a hot topic at today's budget meeting. Image: Shutterstock
Education was a hot topic at today's budget meeting. Image: Shutterstock

Council tax will not rise for Highland households this year – but a range of other measures designed to cut services are on the way.

Councillors met in Inverness today to agree the local authority’s annual budget.

A lengthy debate divided the chamber in Inverness along party lines as the SNP and Independent administration defended its plans to plug a £66m budget gap.

Some of that will come from a reduction of services – but there are also a number of measures designed to raise the council’s income.

One of those, however, will not be the raising of council tax. Instead it will be frozen at the same level as last year.

The item which came under the heaviest fire was the proposal to scrap principal teacher posts at north primary schools.

Highland Council leader Raymond Bremner says green freeport is "real beacon of hope" for the region.
Highland Council leader Raymond Bremner.

No one will lose their job but duties will be passed on to head and depute head teachers instead in a move to save £495,000 within three years.

Council leader Raymond Bremner hammered home the difficult financial position Highland Council still finds itself in.

He said: “Our concentration is on dealing with this challenge, rather than apportioning blame and talking about which government has failed.

“We are aware decisions may be unpopular. But these decisions have been made after a long, thorough process.”

Split over success of public engagement with budget

There was no consensus on level of engagement from the public during the consultation.

Administration councillors praised the public’s response, calling the 2,000 survey responses “unprecedented”.

But leader of the opposition Alasdair Christie was not impressed, saying that 98% of the region’s population not responding was not a success.

The Lib Dem councillor said he wanted to see more “honesty and transparency” in the budget plans.

Councillor Alasdair Christie.

Councillor Christie tabled an amendment calling for more money to put towards the building of a new St Clements School in Dingwall and for more money to be taken from an investment fund towards repairing roads.

He said: “I’m really troubled by the lack of information in this budget.

“There are weaknesses here that make me fear we’ll be in a worse position in a year’s time than we are now.”

‘Should we protect Highland roads or schools?’

The decision to remove principal teacher posts at Highland primary schools provoked some of today’s fiercest debate.

Conservative councillor Helen Crawford said taking away the 70 roles was the wrong move.

She said: “At a time when EIS has highlighted aggression and violence in schools is at an endemic level, teaching staff need our support.

“It’s our responsibility to go into our primary schools and ask headteachers ‘what difference will this make to your school?

Councillor Helen Crawford.

“‘Will it affect attainment? Will it affect staff morale?’ Only once we’ve done this could we be equipped to wave through something like this.”

Education committee chairman John Finlayson said the change would only be made in three years.

He said: “This saving is in no way suggesting these posts are not making a valuable contribution in schools.

“I would point out that education and learning accounts for 32% of the council’s total budget. But only 6.4% of savings are coming from education.

“We all know the scale of this budget challenge and what is proposed is a targeted approach developed in consultation with staff and schools.”

Will Highland budget’s motorhome passport scheme raise £1.5m?

Some of the council’s budget plans to generate more income are easy to understand.

Minimum parking charges going up from £2 to £3 might not be popular – but there’s no mystery about where the extra cash will come from.

But the plan to raise £1.5m with a motorhome passport scheme was widely questioned.

This would entail tourists voluntarily paying £40 for a bumper sticker they could display on their car.

To raise that £1.5m, 37,500 people would have to pay the amount over a three-year period.

More than 200,000 motorhome users visit the Highlands every year. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

Lib Dem councillor Alex Graham said he hoped it would work but called it the “height of optimism”.

Conservative councillor Ruraidh Stewart was less kind, calling the scheme “a nonsense”.

After more than four hours of discussion, votes were held to determine the next step.

A motion from Green councillor Andrew Baldrey to keep the primary teacher principal teacher posts was defeated 39-27.

While councillor Christie’s amendment to plough more money into roads and St Clements School was defeated 41-24, with one abstention.

That means the council’s proposed budget will progress as originally planned.