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Battle of the budgets

Seven-year squeeze takes its toll as councils struggle to balance the books and unions warn of strike ballots

THE teaching unions went on a war footing this week to campaign against the prospect of education authority budget cuts that may lead to compulsory redundancies. The authorities say spending on education will rise by a mere 1.7 per cent in 2000-2001.

John Patten, president of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said union fears were based on talks with local councils, and warned that any prospect of redundancies would immediately trigger a ballot for industrial action in the areas affected.

The EIS was joined by the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association which has carried out a survey of members in 18 councils, 17 of which were planning cuts in their education budgets ranging from pound;250,000 to pound;5.5 million.

Total cash reductions reported were pound;23 million which gave the lie to the Government's proclamation of its commitment to "education, education, education", David Eaglesham, the SSTA's general secretary, said.

Local authority leaders have also been expressing concern, particularly at the fact that pay awards will have to be met from council economies for the seventh year in succession, which to date has cost authorities pound;600 million with another pound;100 million added next year.

"Front-line services and jobs could be at risk," Norman Murray, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, says.

Keir Bloomer, president of the Association of Directors of Education, said:

"The problem is not so much that Government spending limits are worse than before but that we have been through this exercise every year for years.

Once again we are being asked to consume our own smoke as far as wage inflation is concerned. Yet no one seriously believes that efficiency gainsare still available on any significant scale."

The familiar refrain from councils at this time of year comes despite the prospect of an extra pound;377 million from the Government's excellence fund over the three years to 2002. The tranche for 2000-2001 is pound;109.6 million, spread over nine core programmes in 32 authorities.

Norie Williamson, Cosla's head of finance, said excellence fund money could not be spent on anything else and authorities had to use it all even if their spending power is constrained. Cosla estimates that, if excellence fund money is removed from the equation along with other specific sums for special needs, child care, the very young and Gaelic, the real rise in council education spending will be just 1.7 per cent.

Jack McConnell, Finance Minister, acknowledged problems faced by particular councils in rushing out rescue packages for Aberdeenshire, East Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute.

All three authorities said, however, that this would not mean additional resources but simply give them more breathing space to reduce their spending and allow them to keep council tax rises down.

Alan Findlay, education committee chairman in Aberdeenshire, which is facing cuts of more than pound;5 million, commented: "Excellence fund spending is included in the council's spending limit. Given that we are already having to make cuts, every pound we spend from the excellence fund means a cut elsewhere."

Mr Bloomer, whose Clackmannanshire authority is looking at education cuts of pound;600,000, said it was time for ministers to become more honest.

"I have no difficulty with an elected government which wants to reduce local government spending as a proportion of national income," he said. "What I do have difficulty with is a Government which does that but claims it is doing the opposite."

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