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'Orphan' service finds a home

The Government's high-profile agendas on encouraging lifelong learning and ending social exclusion are set to rescue community education services from the financial knife.

Following an inquiry headed by Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector of schools, councils for the first time will be forced to set targets and national minimum standards for community education and spend up to their limit on services, a repeated target for cuts in recent years.

The non-statutory base has led to millions being axed from budgets at a cost of 120 full-time and 1,000 part-time jobs. Large parts of the service have suffered with adult basic education experiencing a 40 per cent fall in numbers.

Although precise figures are sketchy, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities in its own report on community education last summer estimated that council spending was #163;20 million below recommended levels.

Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, launching the first national review of community education since the Alexander report 25 years ago, insisted that #163;102 million was allocated this year to councils and promised to move an "orphan" service into the mainstream.

"We will be working with Cosla to ensure this is targeted to achieve our aims of a new, modern agenda for community education," Mrs Liddell said at an Airdrie community centre.

Councils will be compelled to publish community learning plans that will set out targets which must be approved by the Scottish Office. A detailed circular on community education will be published shortly.

Mr Osler said that the learning plans were much more important than ring-fencing cash. "That really is the gatekeeper for making sure provision is at an adequate level and accompanied by targets and thereafter delivered and I think that is a much better way of improving the level of delivery," he said.

Charles Gray, education convener in North Lanarkshire, accepted the council would be forced to spend more. "We will have to balance out our education allocation to put more into community education than we have been able to do over the last few years," Mr Gray said.

North Lanarkshire is one of the heavier spenders, budgeting more than #163;5 million on community education this year in an area deemed the second most disadvantaged in Scotland.

Jim Sweeney, the council's principal community education officer, said:

"This is a step in the right direction and sends the right message to Cosla about the intrinsic value of lifelong learning. The report underpins the role a focused community education service can play in terms of promoting active citizenship and personal and social development."

Mr Sweeney added: "The bottom line is still about making sure that the monies given out by central government are used for baseline services."

Charlie McConnell, chief executive of the Scottish Community Education Council, "warmly welcomed" the recommendations and the "duty" on councils to publish learning plans for the community.

"This is the most exciting challenge for community education in a generation and the Government has to be strongly congratulated. It has taken on almost every single one of the Cosla recommendations. Community education is being identified as necessary to address the Government's agendas," Mr McConnell said.

A special meeting of Cosla in Edinburgh today (Friday) is expected to underline support for the Osler report.

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