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HMI loved it, but opposition says challenge fund has to go

An initiative to combat low levels of attainmenthas run into political crossfire in West Lothian, reports David Henderson

WEST LOTHIAN'S unique fund to raise pupil attainment was this week praised by HM Inspectors but savaged by the SNP. Opposition councillors pledged to scrap the pound;500,000 scheme if the party takes control after council elections in May.

The second HMI report into the effectiveness of a local authority education department - East Renfrewshire was the first - has now produced a second glowing verdict. Ross Martin, education convener and Labour's Holyrood candidate in Falkirk, said he was "clearly delighted" the Inspectorate had recognised the strength of the service and the leadership shown by the director, Roger Stewart, and his staff.

"It is particularly gratifying to have recognition of the Challenge Fund and the ethos we have encouraged in West Lothian to raise academic attainment," Mr Martin said.

West Lothian invited schools to bid for cash to implement initiatives aimed at improving attainment levels in a council that has recorded below average examination results. Bids came in from 105 schools: 24 succeeded and 61 were partially successful.

HMI says the council is to be "commended for this imaginative and innovative strategy" in tackling underachievement.

Secondary pupils whose exam performance was borderline and primary pupils who fail to reach appropriate levels in mathematics, reading and writing were targeted. A full project evaluation will take place over the summer.

But Peter Johnston, SNP leader and Scottish parliamentary candidate in Livingston - "a teacher of 21 years' standing" - said the party would abandon the fund. "I do not believe in turning schools into winners and losers and on that basis I cannot support taking from general education funds," Mr Johnston said.

He promised that the SNP would put more resources into the classroom and "spend every penny on frontline services". Overall spending would rise.

Labour in West Lothian, according to Scottish Office figures, spent less on education than in the last year under the Tories, Mr Johnston claimed.

Tom Kerr, the sole Conservative on the council, said it was "obvious" Mr Johnston had had a long career in teaching - he was not living in the real world. The challenge fund should be supported because money followed demand and initiative.

"It's not about scattering money where perhaps it's not going to be well used," Mr Kerr said.

Mr Martin, education spokesman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, accused the SNP of living in an "ideological quagmire of the 1970s where the state controls everything and politicians know what's best".

He said the spending figures quoted by Mr Johnston failed to include the Scottish Office excellence fund, the council's own challenge fund or the New Opportunities Fund.

Mr Martin told The TES Scotland it was still not clear whether HMI, as currently set up, was the right body to assess council performance. Four inspectors and a representative from the Accounts Commission were invited in by West Lothian for the report.

Mr Martin, however, believed it was essential that local authorities are held to account by the Scottish parliament, and that officers are accountable to councillors. "If we are serious about ensuring quality in the classroom then we need an assessment of whether the management of the service is leading towards that and in West Lothian the answer is yes," he said.

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