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Highlanders urge pre-school help

HIGHLAND councillors are to use the official opening today of the new Ullapool High to press for Government financial help to enable children to attend pre-school centres.

The absence of funding for pre-school transport in rural areas would prevent the Government meeting its target of an education place for all three and four year olds by 2002, the council argues.

The authority will brief Highland MSPs attending today's ceremony, after which they will take their campaign to the Parliament and the Executive. The arguments will be familiar to Peter Peacock, the deputy children and education minister, who was formerly convener of Highland Council and is a regional MSP for the area. He is said to be sympathetic.

Highland councillors said that there is also little recognition in funding provision for the capital required to bring existing school properties in rural areas up to a standard acceptable for educating three and four-year-olds.

Highland Council has set a target of provision for 76 per cent of three-year-olds by April 2001, on the way to meeting the Scottish Executive target of provision for all three year olds by 2002. This means it will have to provide 137 centres while partner agencies such as the private sector and playgroups will provide another 103.

Although the grants for places are increasing, the council will still be faced with problems providing transport for children in rural areas to get them to school. The annual grant for a fully loaded place will increase from pound;1,175 to pound;1,200 for each child. Based on estimated numbers this gives a grant for four-year-olds of pound;2,984,058 and pound;1,318,717 for three year olds for next year.

Meanwhile Highland's rural grant has increased from pound;970,000 to pound;1,153,457 to subsidise the higher costs of remote areas. But the money will have to be used for improving or providing accommodation and staffing. It makes no provision for transpot and a number of councillors said the money is simply not enough.

A spokesman for the Scottish Executive pointed out, however, that the special rural grant paid out to some local authorities includes an element for pre-school expenditure which can be spent on transport of pupils if required.

The sum included specifically to meet pre-school costs in rural areas was pound;5.8 million and has now risen to pound;6 million

Michael Foxley, a councillor for the Lochaber area, said: "Some parents transport children 20 or 30 miles a day to get their children to a pre-school centre. This ties them down for a large part of the day and the Scottish Executive must provide funding for transport as part of our grant-aided expenditure.

"There also seems to be a complete lack of understanding of the position regarding buildings. Some of the schools are so old that we have just managed to shoehorn the four year olds into them, but to add the three year olds is well-nigh impossible. We have to look at using village halls and other premises, or we have to look at spending money on the old schools, because the facilities don't exist at present."

Dr Foxley also wants better Gaelic-medium facilities for three year olds. "We need funding for transport to get the three year olds to a centre where they can mix with other children and get taught through the medium of Gaelic," he added. "We need to get the message through to civil servants that we need extra money, because there are special Highland needs which are not being recognised."

Andy Anderson, the SNP chairman of Highland education committee, said they intended lobbying on a number of fronts, particularly while the Education Bill is going through Parliament. "In the meantime we will carry out an audit of rural areas to see how serious the problems are and what amount of money will be required so that our lobbying can be more effective," he said.

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