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Council cuts hit lifelong learning

MORE than two out of three councils are below their target spending for community education, despite Scottish Executive advice to pump up the action on lifelong learning.

Figures for the last financial year show only 10 out of 32 authorities were above the level they should be spending because of the general financial squeeze. The non-statutory service is viewed as an easy target and continues to be pound;15 million short of the pound;101 million that should be spent nationally. Budgets have been raided to finance other education services, including schools.

Henry McLeish, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, backed the drive to make Scotland a learning nation when he launched this year's adult learners' week but councils are struggling to meet the demands. Ministers believe there is enough cash in the system if it is redirected to priorities, a key aim of the community learning strategies imposed by the Executive.

But Charlie McConnell, chief executive of Community Learning Scotland, pointed out that total spending was considerably larger than the grant-aided expenditure figures for authorities.

Andy Anderson, SNP education convener in Highland and a former community education worker, said his budget for community education is pound;1 million adrift, half of its estimated spending. Like most, he approves of the shift to community learning strategies, backed by very local plans, but insists the cash is missing.

"If this is to be meaningful and plans are to be implemented, community education will have to have money," Mr Anderson said. "It has been cut back across Scotland and money moved into different departments. In Highland, we have stopped the drift and taken on extra staff with the help of the Scottish Executive. Its Circular 499 gives us some crediility but it is still not a statutory service."

Maria Walker, chair of the national community education managers' group and a senior officer in Perth and Kinross, another authority below guidelines, believes any extra cash from Victoria Quay next year is likely to be targeted at literacy programmes and young people.

Mrs Walker freely endorses the new approach and said: "Community education never figured in the old government agenda."

The strategies involve many different agencies in a fresh focus, particularly on social inclusion and lifelong learning. "This gives us a chance to show what we can do, set ourselves targets and work much more with the voluntary sector. For us, it's about visibility, accountability and the chance to show what we can do together and individually," Mrs Walker said.

In practice, this may mean leaving much of current youth club work to the voluntary sector, allowing professional staff to work with smaller numbers from socially excluded groups.

Neil McKechnie, head of educational development in West Dunbartonshire, where spending is above target, forecast: "Community education will be less to do with managing centres and more to do with direct service delivery, including work with schools."

West Dunbartonshire will concentrate on new community schools initiatives, particularly in the North Clydebank and Vale of Leven areas following its revised strategy. "The strategies do seem to be pulling people together with a common objective," Mr McKechnie noted.

Allister Short, Youth Clubs Scotland spokesman, said the strategies - which are currently being analysed by the Executive - should improve the partnership with the voluntary sector. But, so far, they had yet to involve the volunteers clubs depended on.

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