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'Death knell' for residential centres

David Henderson reports on the crisis confronting outdoor education following the break-up of the regions. "Once gone, they will never be re-created. They will be lost to the public for ever," Malcolm Green, Glasgow's education convener, lamented earlier this month. Dr Green was reflecting on the closure of two activity centres chiefly used by city children: Castle Toward and Achnamara, both in Argyll and Bute.

But when the budget does not meet basic needs, the casualties are in non-statutory areas such as outdoor education. It remains a service on the margins, even if much valued and commended.

The city council was bequeathed four centres last spring when Strathclyde was dismantled, all in Argyll and Bute. It has retained Blairvadach and Caol Ruadh and opted to close Castle Toward, often used for residential music courses, and Achnamara, saving Pounds 224,000.

Estimates suggest a quarter of centres have closed. Faskally in Perthshire is shut, and Glaisnock in East Ayrshire has gone. Three small centres in the Scottish Borders are going in October and two centres in Stirling may join them.

At least one of Edinburgh's two centres, either Benmore in Argyll and Bute, or Lagganlia, near Kingussie, is at risk. Canoes, skis and climbing equipment are up for sale in Moray, and charges are rising in virtually every council.

Control over facilities has emerged as a source of intense friction as Strathclyde 12 successor authorities squabble over the region's centres, eight of them in Argyll and Bute. As Archie Morton, Argyll and Bute's director of education, says: "It is quite big business." The council wants to keep the centres open to safeguard local jobs.

Glasgow, North Lanarkshire and East Dunbartonshire are contesting ownership through the local government property commission but Mr Morton points out: "We inherited all the property and we indicated to other authorities we would be happy to ensure they had access to centres and would enter into a contract with them. We control the cleaning, domestic staff and transport and the system is continuing to run successfully." The other councils control the professional staff and send pupils. At Garelochhead, under East Dunbartonshire's control, 38 of the 40 coming school weeks will be taken up by East Dunbarton groups. The council insists it retains an interest.

Differences between Inverclyde, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire over the centre at Ardentinny provoked another dust-up. Inverclyde and Renfrewshire wanted out of the partnership after they balked at the cost of keeping the centre open. They now want a share of the equipment and other moveable assets.

Political pressure to preserve the mothballed centres at Ardentinny, Achnamara and Castle Toward has led to a joint initiative by East Renfrewshire, Argyll and Bute and the councils' two local enterprise companies. Business plan are being drawn up to test the centres' commercial viability and the target market would go beyond school and youth groups. Intriguingly, Glasgow College of Nautical Studies has joined the alliance and plans to run several water-based courses from the centres.

Mr Morton says: "No one council could afford the subsidy but if you can fill big chunks of space you can continue to offer schools the same service at the same times of the year. We have to recognise that in Strathclyde days the level of subsidy was beyond what individual authorities could afford to pay. The effective cost was Pounds 250 a week and pupils were being charged Pounds 95."

Despite acute financial pressure, Glasgow's education budget will retain Pounds 2.4 million for outdoor education and basic charges have been held at Pounds 100 a week. Pupils on free meals and clothing grants (40 per cent of those in the city) will pay Pounds 10. The problem is accommodating a large number of potential users in the two remaining centres.

Eleanor Currie, East Renfrewshire's director of education, says: "Outdoor education will stay on our agenda." Besides backing the Argyll initiative, the council will redeploy three staff from Ardentinny to Barrhead High.

In East Ayrshire, Pounds 100,000 has been cut from the budget for outdoor education and three posts have been axed. Commenting on the closure of the centre at Glaisnock, John Mulgrew, the director of education, says the council is "making a serious attempt to continue with a necessary and innovative approach without being lumbered with an enormous barn of a building".

Three staff will offer support to schools and local groups but Mr Mulgrew accepts the key issue is how to generate income and still provide opportunities for disadvantaged areas. He asks: "Is this the death knell for outdoor education or the death knell for individual properties? Will East Ayrshire be able to sustain outdoor education of the modified type when there is the question of the social strategy and funding for pupils?" The former Highland, Grampian and Tayside councils all operated a similar system, but as Brendan Gormley, outdoor education worker in Aberdeenshire, points out, schools and youth groups in these areas did not have to travel far to take advantage of the countryside, mountains and rivers. "At Aboyne Academy you could do everything in the outdoor curriculum in the school day, canoeing, climbing, skiing, " Mr Gormley says. "The problem was getting pupils back in time for their buses at 3.30."

Nine centres, mostly in disused primary schools, operate in Aberdeenshire and neighbouring Moray. Staffed centres were never established since most activities are day-based. Staff are drawing up a business plan to push the service down the commercial road. But a freeze on staff development will thwart much of the direction of the present policy of training teachers and youth workers to supervise groups.

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