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Councillors play blame game

Past failures in dealing with vulnerable children, overspending and half-empty schools leave a department in crisis

EDINBURGH'S CHILDREN and families department admits it is facing an overspend of pound;14 million far higher than previously reported with the black hole getting bigger every week.

Marilyne MacLaren, convener for education and children and families, disclosed details of the extent of the department's financial crisis while launching a series of school closure proposals.

Most of the overspend more than pound;7 million has gone towards protecting vulnerable children. Other drains on cash have been home to school transport, energy costs and the implementation of Glow, the digital learning network for Scottish schools.

Edinburgh City Council's spending on child protection shot up, following the death of 11-week-old Caleb Ness at the hands of his father. An inquiry found faults with the council's child protection system at "almost every level" and the entire social work department was reorganised, and its children's services merged with education.

"We dramatically increased the number of children on the child protection register by around 75 per cent," said Ewan Aitken, the leader of the council before control switched from Labour to a Liberal DemocratSNP coalition in the May elections. "Three-quarters of the money spent over budget in children and families is spent on children whose lives are fragile."

Councillor MacLaren, however, believes the crisis was avoidable. "The situation we are finding ourselves in is a public disgrace," she said. "The department has been running hot for a number of years and nobody bothered to claw it back."

The new administration now plans to deal with the shortfall by reducing headteachers' budgets by pound;1 million and cutting Sure Start funding. It also wants to reduce nursery places and close more than 20 schools, nurseries and community centres.

These closures, the council estimates, will save it pound;9 million in running costs over three years, with a further pound;16 million to be accrued from the sites occupied by the earmarked primaries.

A freeze has been placed on the recruitment of headteachers and depute heads. A reduction of teachers should be achieved through natural wastage, but the council has refused to rule out redundancies, and Unison members were yesterday on strike over the threat to jobs.

All savings from closures will be reinvested in the children and families department, says the council.

With school rolls falling, the rationalisation of the school estate has been predicted for some time. Since 1997, primary school numbers have fallen by 18 per cent a decline which has been accompanied by an pound;8 million decrease in Scottish Executive funding over the past five years. However, the proposals have gone much further than expected, with 13 primaries, three secondaries, six nursery schools and four community centres targeted.

The inclusion of secondaries in the closure plans was completely unexpected, according to one headteacher. Staff were "gutted" and anxious about their jobs, he said. At Castlebrae Community High, staff have gone from finalising plans with architects for a new pound;30 million building to the prospect of closure.

Councillor MacLaren admitted the plans had been a "rushed job" some schools could be closed within a year but blamed the former Labour-led administration. It, she said, had "chickened out" of making the tough decisions on rationalisation, leaving the new Lib Dem-SNP council leadership to make changes more quickly than it would have liked.

But Labour's Councillor Aitken hit back, saying Councillor Mac-Laren had not always been so keen to shut schools. He said: "Marilyne MacLaren voted against every single school closure, bar one, that I proposed: Orwell Primary."

According to the estate review published last Friday, the surplus of school places first came to the council's attention in 2004 but the former Labour administration's plans to tackle it ran into opposition from within its own ranks, as well as the public.

Rising house prices in the capital have also played a part, forcing families into neighbouring authorities and leaving many areas with half-empty schools.

If the plans go ahead, the first primary school closures will take place at the end of June next year, with more primaries and secondaries closing in June 2009.

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