THE Government's excellence fund has saved the day. That appears to be the message from education authorities whose budgets are now swollen with money for a whole series of ministerial initiatives from pre-school to the National Grid for Learning. The money is ring-fenced and cannot be spent on anything else.
Without the extra funding, spending would have fallen or been kept to a standstill. The Secretary of State has told councils he expects education expenditure to grow by 6.4 per cent in the 1999-2000 financial year. At least one authority, Highland, has hit that figure exactly with an increase from pound;113 million to pound;120m.
But despite the largesse, familiar stresses and strains remain. Aberdeenshire, for example, has been forced to scrap foreign language assistants as part of a pound;1.7m savings package, while Argyll and Bute has earmarked pound;100,000 from closing primary schools as a contribution to education cuts of pound;767,000.
Aberdeenshire says its Scottish Office grant aid was a below inflation increase of only 1.9 per cent in real terms, after the ring-fenced funds and new obligations were stripped out. Excellence fund money is pound;3.6m but the budget is up from pound;114m to only pound;116m.
Aberdeen is also wary of showing too much enthusiasm. An injection of pound;2.6m has come from the excellence fund but, offset by cuts of pound;930,000, spending is up by a modest 1.5 per cent. The main problem is that wage rises still have to be met by efficiency savings, John Stodter, the council's director of education, says.
So, despite the Government's determination to channel extra money directly to the classroom, Aberdeen schools are to lose pound;200,000 from their devolved budgets and secondary staffing will be cut back to save pound;100,000.
Midlothian planned a "no cuts, no growth" budget. The increase from pound;48m to pound;49m is largely accounted for by including an assumed 3 per cent pay rise for teachers. The excellence fund adds another pound;1m.
But the general mood is optimistic. "The biggest increase in investment in our schools for a generation" was the reaction of Paul Williamson, education vice-convener in Edinburgh, claiming an pound;18m spending rise.
"We have never had a budget like this before," said Alan Blackie, director of education and community services in East Lothian, where a cuts-free package will see 4 per cent growth in the coming year and 13 per cent planned over the next three.
Jim Watson, council leader in Clackmannan, described its budget as "the most positive we have ever had". Clackmannan's budget will grow by 7 per cent, up by pound;1.8m to pound;26m after pound;252,000 savings have been removed.
Sandy Weston, education resources manager in Dundee, expressed satisfaction at "a good budget for us". Education spending will increase from pound;65m to pound;68m, although more than pound;2m of the difference is excellence fund money and 2.5 per cent has been built in for pay increases.
Edinburgh's figures highlight the complexities. Spending is up by pound;5.8m on last year's initial pound;178m budget, signalling real growth of 3.3 per cent. But pound;6.2m extra from the excellence fund and pound;5.8m incorporated into the base budget from the Government's initial New Deal cash (for raising standards, early intervention, the fabric of buildings and information technology) give the pound;18m headline increase.
East Renfrewshire, where the Eastwood constituency is a key parliamentary seat in the Scottish elections, boasts a 9.9 per cent spending rise, or pound;4.5m, taking the budget to pound;58m.
East Ayrshire has been able to make cuts of pound;242,500 and still see its budget grow from pound;57m to just over pound;62m. Excellence fund cash of pound;1.8m is reinforced by pound;411,000 released from closing schools two years ago which will go towards tackling deprivation and building links with industry. John Mulgrew, East Ayrshire's director, said the major priority was to ensure money delegated to schools found its way to the classroom.
Glasgow's pound;346m budget, up by pound;37m, is also benefiting from school closure money as well as the excellence fund, with pound;4.6m ploughed in from axing 10 secondaries.