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Fears for pupil attainment gap if Highland Council raids ring-fenced cash to subsidise keyworker childcare

Councillor Graham Mackenzie of Highland Council.
Councillor Graham Mackenzie of Highland Council.

Fears have been raised that disadvantaged Highland children will lose out if the council raids a cash supply reserved for boosting attainment levels to cover childcare costs for key workers.

The council says the care will cost £800,000 up until August, and could exceed £1 million if it needs to be provided until the end of the year.

The Scottish Government has told councils they must carry on funding the care of youngsters belonging to key workers, and can “flexibly” use ring-fenced money to do so – including Pupil Equity Fund (PEF) and Scottish Attainment Challenge (SAC) cash.

PEF funding comes from the Scottish Government and benefits 183 out of 205 Highland schools.

It is designed to close the poverty-related attainment gap by supporting children in Primary 1 to S3.

Highland schools receive sums ranging from under £10,000 to £149,000.

Councillor Graham Mackenzie said the prospect of schools losing PEF funding would be “devastating” for teachers striving to make sure pupils receive the best opportunities in life.

The former Dingwall Academy headteacher said: “My gut feeling is that the council is prepared to take PEF and SAC money to fund the child care.

“This funding is crucial for schools. It’s there to narrow the attainment gap.

“The past 10 weeks will have done nothing to narrow that gap, in fact I would be surprised it it hasn’t widened considerably.”

The scheme started in 2017, with annual payments to Highland Council coming in at around £4m per year.

Some councillors said there should be an end date for the subsidising of childcare for key workers, but were told it is a Scottish Government obligation.

Council leader Margaret Davidson said: “We do have to think about the ultimate impact  so what we’re all saying is let’s do this over the next couple of months and see if the fog clears, and we can find our way into the future in a more sustainable way.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said critical childcare for key workers is a priority during the pandemic.

She said: “We have relaxed the guidance around PEF to ensure that schools and local authorities can provide extra support to the children who need it most, in line with the principle of equity in education.”

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