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pound;200m worth of good news

As councils meet to cut budgets and raise taxes, Neil Munro looks at the other side of the coin

If you are a three-year-old in Clackmannan, face losing your teacher in the Borders, have to put up with cramped accommodation in Perth and Kinross, work on outdated Amstrad machines in Fife, are struggling with maths in the middle primary years in Renfrewshire or have to use outside toilets in North Ayrshire - the Government has come to your rescue.

These are among the many beneficiaries of Chancellor Gordon Brown's "new deal for schools", announced in last July's Budget. It is worth pound;204.7 million in Scotland over five years and the impact, being modest but real, will almost certainly be overlooked today (Friday) when yesterday's council budget decisions for the 1998-99 financial year hit the headlines.

The hand-out has allowed many authorities, even cash-strapped Glasgow, to claim they have not made any cuts at all in their school budgets - although this puts even greater strain on other non-statutory areas of education. The money is to go towards the Government's four priorities of raising standards, early years education, information technology and improved school buildings. Any expenditure must pass the test of having "maximum impact in the classroom".

Some pound;59 million of this "new deal for schools" initiative (not to be confused with the welfare-to-work new deal) will come in the form of extra revenue expenditure. All authorities will receive a pro rata share and, while ministers are considering whether this should be extended in future years, it is currently for 1998-99 only.

There are no specific rules on how the pound;59 million is to be spent, other than on classroom priorities. But the Secretary of State will call for reports from authorities "in due course" on what they have done. The Scottish Office says only that the money must not be used for teachers' pay.

Nor, officials say, should it encourage councils to "relax pressure to operate at maximum levels of efficiency".

Another pound;30 million will be available for next year, in two tranches of pound;15 million. The first pound;15 million will be for "spend to save" measures to help all authorities reduce running costs and the rest is for eight councils to fund school closures (the pound;12 million lion's share going to Glasgow).

The remaining pound;115.7 million will fund capital programmes over this and the next four financial years to improve school buildings and introduce more IT facilities in the classroom.

Authorities have been responding creatively to this unaccustomed bounty. While investment in IT, building improvements and energy controls is common, other councils are exercising maximum discretion. At least one is saying privately that the new deal funding is not being entirely devoted to schools.

Scottish Borders has opted to put pound;1 million of its pound;1.2 million into maintaining staffing standards and keeping class sizes at current levels. Otherwise 50 teachers would have had to go, including visiting teachers of the expressive arts and learning support.

The council believes that bailing out the salaries budget is not at odds with the Government's objective of "maximum impact in the classroom". John Christie, its director of education, said: "The best way of raising standards is to keep teachers in the classroom."

Glasgow, which receives pound;6.7 million in revenue funding for next year, is also using the cash to protect and enhance secondary staffing. Some pound;2.9 million of new deal money, backed by the first pound;1 million in savings from the city's closures programme, will create 143 secondary school posts, help with additional transport costs for pupils from closed schools, restore previous per capita cuts in school supplies, and provide for investment in IT.

But many authorities are also intent on attacking low standards in highly specific ways. Clackmannan, for example, is spending pound;323,000 of its pound;564,000 new deal revenue allocation on extending literacy and numeracy work. This will be augmented by a reading recovery programme for primary 3-primary 5 pupils, plus a personal effectiveness programme for lower achieving pupils. There will also be a core skills initiative for 10 to 14-year-olds.

"We want to ensure that we don't just develop basic skills and leave it at that," Keir Bloomer, the council's director of education, states. "We don't want to end up with slightly more literate but still ineffective learners. These measures, together with supported study and extracurricular activities, are designed to ensure we tackle pupils' low esteem and poor achievement as well."

Clackmannan will also be able to open two new nursery classes, extend an existing one and increase support to playgroups. "We already have a pre-school place for every four-year-old and this will take us to within striking distance of a place for every three-year-old," Mr Bloomer says.

In Renfrewshire, the council plans to allocate pound;1 million of its pound;2.1 million new deal share on a standards programme which involves improving early years literacy in primary 1-primary 3, combating poor performance in maths at the middle primary stages, improving home-school links in Paisley, tackling underachievement in secondary schools by providing more guidance time and countering anti-social behaviour in primaries. These measures would create 43 temporary posts.

Perth and Kinross is also embarking on a package which will devote pound;800,000 of its additional pound;1.4 million revenue expenditure to targeting the early years and raising standards. Baseline assessment is to be developed for pre-school to primary 2 and from primary 6 to secondary 2. But the council will also build in staff training, homework clubs, study skills classes and an extra 18 nursery nurses.

Like other authorities, Perth and Kinross is the recipient of an additional pound;970,000 in capital allocations, on top of pound;207,000 extra this year. This will allow it to spend 25 per cent more on tackling the backlog of school repairs than it did this year, and increase by 100 per cent the support for IT.

The new deal cash has clearly not come a moment too soon for many authorities. The parlous financial pass to which Scotland's councils have come is illustrated by the fact that so much of the Chancellor's bounty is being soaked up by a maintenance rather than an improvement agenda as staffing standards, buildings and computer equipment receive a much needed financial boost.

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