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Black week for outdoor centres

A last-minute bid to save three outdoor education centres in Argyll is to be mounted by the local authority. But Argyll and Bute's director of education fears the move could be jeopardised by a continuing dispute over ownership of buildings and equipment.

Meanwhile supporters of centre-based outdoor education suffered another setback as three of the four outdoor centres run by Scottish Borders Council were axed.

Protracted efforts by Inverclyde, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire councils to disengage from the Ardentinny centre in Argyll now look likely to end up with the local government property commission, which was set up to arbitrate in disputes between the new unitary authorities.

The councils are insisting on their pro rata share of the equipment and other moveable assets because Ardentinny staff are to be redeployed to the three authorities. Renfrewshire's usage of the building entitles it to a 37 per cent share. Inverclyde is due a 26 per cent share and East Renfrewshire 21 per cent.

Glasgow City Council is going a step further and laying claim to the buildings at the two centres from which it is pulling out, Castle Toward and Achnamara, as well as the equipment. Argyll and Bute believes it has title to the buildings and wants to hold on to the equipment pending the outcome of a feasibility study into managing and marketing all three centres as a single unit.

Archie Morton, director of education in Argyll, says notifications of outside interest have already been received. But he warned that a rescue package could be undermined if ownership of the buildings is in doubt or equipment removed. He believes the wrangle could run for several months.

Argyll councillors on the finance and personnel committee were discussing the funding of a feasibility study yesterday (Thursday), which would take three months to complete. Highlands and Islands Enterprise has engaged consultants to investigate the viability of Ardentinny, but the three councils involved were unable to make good a Pounds 180,000 shortfall necessary to make the centre wash its face.

The three centres to be closed in the Borders are Pyatshaw near Lauder, Towford in the Cheviots and Tweedsmuir in the Biggar and Moffat area. The authority is also pulling out of its commitment to meet caretaker costs at the Scotch Kershope centre near Newcastleton. These decisions are intended to reduce the Pounds 196,000 outdoor education budget by Pounds 35,150.

A review group of officials, heads and outdoor education staff had proposed "with regret" that only the Grantshouse centre, which is well situated near the Berwickshire coast between Duns and Eyemouth, should remain open. The committee accepted this and pledged that "every effort" would be made to redeploy the five staff posts affected. Charges for outdoor activities will also be introduced.

Although local authorities' budgetary problems have been the immediate catalyst for the offensive against the outdoor centres, educational and legislative changes have also combined to leave them stranded. A report to Borders councillors last week observed, for example, that outdoor education "does not require to be based in outdoor centres".

New legislative controls over the running of outdoor and adventure centres, introduced in the wake of the Lyme Regis canoeing tragedy in 1993, mean an increase in inspection costs - around Pounds 1,000 a year for Scottish Borders.

Education authorities are therefore increasingly turning to the provision of outdoor education directly through schools, which will not be subject to registration and inspection.

Inverclyde, for example, intends to develop just such an alternative strategy by redeploying the depute principal and two instructors from Ardentinny. Only 500 secondary pupils in the area had access to the centre each year out of a primary and secondary school population of 15,000.

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