Revolt on rural cash

David Henderson

Highland takes the lead in warning that McCrone funding gap will hit recruitment

RURAL authorities with large numbers of small schools have warned ministers they will be forced to axe key elements of the McCrone deal because of the inherent unfairness of Scottish Executive budgeting.

Highland is spearheading a joint campaign for a cash review after its McCrone funding gap over the next three years soared from pound;3.25 million to pound;6.6 million, provided it implements the full deal. The shortfall is jeopardising the much-lauded system for introducing newly qualified teachers to schools and the employment of substantial numbers of extra support staff.

Bruce Robertson, Highland's director of education and a member of the original McCrone committee, said there could be an even more significant impact on teacher recruitment in the long-term without an adjustment in favour of rural authorities. Teachers would not want to work in authorities that were treated less favourably.

Critics say the Executive's sums were based on five traditional assessments for distributing cash, principally on a pupil headcount, but did not allow for the large number of primaries in rural areas with fewer than 30 pupils or their heavy investment in Gaelic-medium education. Highland says figures would have been vastly different if funds had been allocated on the number of full-time equivalent teachers.

The Western Isles is the latest authority to protest after calculations showed it will be pound;2.5 million short over three years. The total cost will be pound;5.3 million but it has received only pound;2.8 million.

Shetland, pound;700,000 short this year, shares the sentiment. In Orkney, Leslie Manson, director of education, said officials were "bemused and baffled" by the sums on McCrone. He believed any initiatives would be resource-driven because of the lack of transparency in funding.

Highland admits there is financial recognition for schools with fewer than 70 pupils but not for fewer than 30. "In such schools the cost per pupil is in excess of pound;5,000. In Highland, for instance, almost one-third of the 189 primary schools have fewer than 30 pupils (two teachers). There is also no recognition whatsoever for small secondary schools," it says.

The five authorities may collectively be pound;2 million adrift this year on McCrone, and stress they need extra staff for scattered rural schools where there are few options for closures because of the distances involved.

Mr Robertson described the system as "fundamentally unfair" and demanded "equity" for pupils across Scotland. "If we do not get extra money, all we will be able to do is pay the salaries agreement. We will have absolutely no opportunity to look at support staff or the probationary system," he said.

A Scottish Executive spokeswoman gave no grounds for comfort. "The grant distribution formula used takes into account the proportion of pupils in small rural and island schools. This is the same formula used for the distribution of teachers' increases over many years and was agreed with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities," she said.

'HAPPILY SPENDING OUR MONEY'

In Argyll and Bute, estimates suggest that the council will be pound;2.62 million short over three years. Officials believe that central belt authorities with large and well populated primary schools came out on top because of the calculations.

"Edinburgh is now happily spending our money," Joe McGeer, senior education official responsible for the budget in Argyll and Bute, said.

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