Heads praise budget changes

We need flexibility on cash,councils warn Peacock, reports Elizabeth Buie

Headteachers have welcomed new guidelines telling local authorities to devolve as much as 90 per cent of school budgets to schools themselves.

But councils, while supporting the move, made clear that school-based budgets were not ring-fenced and authorities must have the flexibility to use tight budgets to meet their overall objectives.

Education Minister Peter Peacock had outlined his intentions last year, but the circular issued on Wednesday sets out in black and white his expectation that councils must place a minimum of 80 per cent of school budgets under the direct control of headteachers, rising to 90 per cent.

The circular also lists the areas of expenditure regarded as not suitable for devolved school management: capital expenditure, school meals, bursaries and clothing grants, authority-wide initiatives, transport, central support services such as psychological and learning support, additional support needs, education maintenance allowances, administrative costs for parent boards, school estate management costs and school security running costs.

Bill McGregor, general secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said he was happy with the areas that were to be exempt from DSM, saying they were essentially "better dealt with by authorities rather than individual schools".

But he wondered whether the circular would be acted upon. "They are guidelines, and guidelines can vary," he said.

If the resources were not devolved to schools by authorities, then it would be for the minister to decide what action had to be taken, Mr McGregor added.

Another concern was that schools would be tied to local authority in-house organisations, for example, direct labour organisations, which tended to be much higher priced than outside contractors.

Mr McGregor said headteachers would welcome the much more rigorous and intelligent accountability of school budget management that he expected would follow.

Ewan Aitken, education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said: "Councils are committed to devolving as much budgetary control as possible to headteachers to enable resources to be used as best suits the school's needs. We are confident that we can reach the target agreed with the Scottish Executive to devolve 90 per cent of school-based expenditure."

However, he attacked some press reports at the weekend suggesting that only 67 per cent of the funding given to authorities to spend on schools actually reached them. Councillor Aitken said some of the figures reflected councils' total education budgets, which cover much wider ground, and include elements of finance which are specifically excluded from DSM.

The problem involved in interpreting budget allocations was underlined by the case of Aberdeenshire Council, which was reported in Scotland on Sunday to have devolved only 38 per cent of its education budget to schools, based on figures supplied by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.

The council says the amount devolved is the exact opposite - 62 per cent. A spokeswoman added: "It should be noted that, out of the 38 per cent non-devolved budget, we have to meet huge annual school transport costs of pound;11.5 million. We receive government grant support of only pound;3.4m -leaving us to meet the rest."

* The Education Minister has also issued a consultation document on more flexible routes to achieving the Standard for Headship. This would allow aspiring headteachers to put together a personal plan of action to meet the Standard, which might include activities different from the Scottish Qualification for Headship programme.

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