Cuts to public funding – but please not to arts for kids!

There is no doubt that for some reason – and I’m not going into the reasons here – there’s simply not enough public money to go around.

The NHS is in trouble with GP practices and hospitals in the north unable to recruit doctors who are either suitably qualified for our many vacant posts or willing to relocate north. The three-part BBC2 series The Family Doctors, which focussed on Elgin Health Centre, demonstrated, better than any government study could, the impact on the staff working there, with GPs unable to retire without putting their colleagues under further strain.

The reasons for the recruitment crisis are medical students not choosing general practice as a career (perhaps because of the stress they see existing GPs under) and because many experienced GPs have retired as a result of pensions being capped.

And the issue is not confined to GPs – the Radiology department at Raigmore Hospital has been suffering a staffing crisis since last summer, and it is not the only department there or the only hospital suffering.

Away from the NHS there is not enough money for education. Pupils in secondary schools are having their subject choices curtailed because they simply cannot recruit enough teachers. And in recent weeks, leaked documents from Highland Council suggested they were proposing to cut 300 jobs in education, including cuts to numbers of teachers, additional support needs staff and pupil support assistants. Perhaps in the wake of public outcry from parents those cuts are now apparently ‘off the table’. Moray Council has already warned that its reserves will be ‘all used up’ by 2019, and before Christmas they were warning that a lack of teachers might result in pupils going to school part-time.

There have been mutterings that refuse collections will be reduced from fortnightly to every three weeks, and there is evidence on the streets and pavements around all our homes that gritting and street-sweeping budgets have been slashed. We will all be eager to read how the councils intend to balance their books when they announce their spending priorities later this month.

But one organisation that has not been subject to cuts was Creative Scotland. According to their own website they are “the public body that supports the arts, screen and creative industries across all parts of Scotland on behalf of everyone who lives, works or visits here. We enable people and organisations to work in and experience the arts, screen and creative industries in Scotland by helping others to develop great ideas and bring them to life. We distribute funding from the Scottish Government and The National Lottery.”

I agree, it sometimes be can be hard to justify the place of drama or dance in society to someone who now can’t study chemistry in school and therefore is unlikely to get into medical school so will never become the GP they always wanted to be – a GP who could have helped soften the NHS crisis. But due to the importance of the arts to life in Scotland, Creative Scotland’s funding from The Scottish Government was not cut last year. That means they had the same sum of money to distribute as it had the year before.

Why then, in 2018, Scotland’s Year of Young People, was the funding to two of Scotland’s best known and best loved children’s theatre companies cut? Scotland is now the only country in Europe without a regularly funded children’s theatre company.

And why did Eden Court, the theatre which has the largest outreach programme of arts education for young people in the UK (not just Scotland), receive the largest cut of any funded body in Scotland?

Eden Court will be £600,000 short over the next three years. Already the business is run on a heavily commercial basis, with income from conferences, weddings and catering helping to boost the theatre’s coffers and keep ticket prices accessible.

The obvious place for £600,000 of savings to be made will be in the education programme Eden Court offers to people across the Highlands and Moray. Children, adults, people with disabilities and those who are otherwise excluded from mainstream society have all benefitted in recent years from the tremendous work that the Eden Court outreach teams offer.

We all know that Dr Who and Jumanji star Karen Gillan got her start at Eden Court, but what is perhaps less well known is that the theatre has used money from the Proceeds of Crime Fund to help hard-to-reach young people get careers in the arts.

One project approached a group of kids who were hanging around in a public car park in Elgin causing a nuisance. By turning up with a video camera, a shed-load of talent and excellent communication skills, staff worked with the group over a series of weeks, helping them to write, direct, star in and create costumes and make-up for their own movie. Two of those kids – with barely a formal qualification between them – went on to study film-making in college.

In times of austerity difficult decisions have to be made. But Creative Scotland made the wrong choice when they diverted funds from such a vital beacon in our community. I hope there is a rethink, and that Highland Council don’t follow suit.

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This column first appeared in six SPP Group newspapers week ended 2nd February 2018.