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Coffers are empty but cupboards full of gear

Castle Toward's legions of supporters will see the centre's problems as unique

Castle Toward's legions of supporters will see the centre's problems as unique

There is growing evidence, however, that Scotland's other residential centres also face an increasingly uncertain future as councils face budgetary cuts.

One senior figure made the startling claim that local authorities have "squandered" pound;83 million of lottery-backed New Opportunities Fund money targeted on outdoor education in the past five years.

Some argue that future funding should not go to councils which, it is suggested, lack the capacity to provide for large numbers, but to the tertiary or charitable sectors which have more experience. "There is no lottery legacy," said one source, "and cupboards are full of canoes and lifejackets, because councils can't afford the revenue budget to put them to use."

The Outdoor Learning Strategic Advisory Group, chaired by Bruce Robertson, the director of education for Aberdeenshire Council, is due to report around Easter on the strategic future of residential centres, among other areas of outdoor learning. He acknowledged that residential centres were "under some pressure" for mainly financial and regulatory reasons, but also had to convince pupils and parents they offer quality experiences.

"The outdoor learning national report is likely to confirm that there is a place for a quality residential experience in a youngster's national journey and aligned to A Curriculum for Excellence," he said.

It is also clear that authorities are operating a "mixed economy" in outdoor learning. Andy Beveridge, head of the Benmore outdoor education centre in Dunoon, counts himself comparatively lucky. It is owned and run by Edinburgh City Council which, he says, is highly committed culturally to residential education. But Benmore and its sister centre, Lagganlia near Kingussie, are self-funding, which means only the children whose parents can afford to pay full costs are able to attend.

Mr Beveridge, who chairs the Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres, says: "In a way, we are safer than before when we were a subsidised service, because we don't cost the council anything. But I know of colleagues working in other authorities where the implications of budget cuts are likely to have a significant effect on outdoor learning."

As Liz Evans, chair of the Institute for Outdoor Learning (Scotland) points out, fewer parents can afford the cost - sometimes up to pound;250 a week - for a stay at an outdoor centre. As numbers drop, costs go up. As manager of Ardroy centre at Lochgoilhead until she retired last year, she understands the pressures. Ardroy is owned by Fife Council, which is considering putting it into a trust as a cost-saving measure, she says.

Dave Spence, chief executive of Scottish Outdoor Education Centres, believes the potential exists for Scottish children to have outdoor regular learning experiences of varying types. "But we have to do things differently if we are to achieve that," he said.

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