pound;4m 'black hole' cuts delayed

John Cairney

A sorry tale of poor financial controls and a huge overspend is unresolved, bringing more headaches for schools, John Cairney reports

THE move by Scottish Borders Council to delay a final decision on education cuts aimed at countering a pound;4 million overspend will put further pressure on schools, which will now have even less planning time.

A report to the council last Thursday from John Christie, the director of education, revealed a tale of virtually non-existent financial controls, made worse by a failure to ensure that devolved budgeting in schools was in line with central budgeting by the council.

The unpredictability of "demand-led" services such as special education, school transport, catering and cleaning also contributed to the problem, creating a combined overspend of pound;1.2 million alone. There was a shortfall of pound;389,000 in the nursery budget because parents chose the private or voluntary sectors, and spending on the National Grid for Learning overshot by pound;320,000.

In a damning indictment of his department, Mr Christie said: "A common thread with all these areas was a failure to establish proper accountabilities and control procedures and to follow through the implications of budget changes."

The availability of data, the director added, was poor "and certainly inadequate for control purposes".

Audit Scotland has confirmed it is mounting an inquiry The council's postponement of a decision until August 1 came despite a plea from Mr Christie for "a clear steer" so that school managements can begin their planning. He told the council that the holidays gave schools time to prepare, but the planning had to start immediately.

The catalogue of proposed "budget adjustments" to the education revenue budget for 2001-02 is intended to save pound;1,575,500. The package emerged from a working group set up to address an overspend of pound;2.8 million, incurred over two years but likely to be recouped in more than one financial year.

Mr Christie told the council that, since 1999, budget monitoring reports from the directors of education and financial services had "consistently indicated overspending but (had) understated their ultimate extent".

He said the budget set for the current year had helped to ease areas of particular pressure and, though staff were working extremely hard to contain budgets within expenditure, some areas will need longer than one year to recover the situation fully.

The present difficulties, he said, originated in 1999-2000 when education overspent by pound;1.6 million.

Allocations to schools were reduced by pound;350,000 in 2000-01 but schools will have to find another pound;500,000 out of their devolved budgets. Problems continue to beset the scheme of devolved school management (DSM), however, and the budgets allocated to schools were insufficient to meet their staffing requirements.

Flaws in operating DSM created budgetary problems during the last financial year, Mr Christie's report continued, resulting in an overspend of pound;1.4 million, of which pound;1.1 million was incurred by schools as part of the DSM scheme which permits overspending by about 5 per cent. The director is recommending that this leeway should be withdrawn for this year unless "exceptional approval" is granted by him.

Updating the DSM "conversion factors" to take account of inflation is estimated to save pound;237,000 this year and will require heads "to manage within a revised budget allocation".

The overspend of pound;320,000 in implementing the National Grid for Learning was not reported in 2000-01 and the reason for this is still under investigation. The cost of installing the NGFL is "well in excess" of the government grant provided. The full cost is currently under review and its planned extension has been suspended, with full implementation unlikely before next March.

Other areas where cuts are likely to bite include: cancelling centrally- funded staff development (saving pound;95,000), reduction in maintenance (pound;150,000), and not filling vacancies, including those for two advisers, an educational psychologist and a senior education officer (pound;138,000).

Clothing and footwear grants will be reduced by pound;60,000, with pound;25,000 cut from the nursery budget, resulting in the closure of two nurseries.

Leader, page 22

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John Cairney

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