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In the shadow of the axe

David Henderson reports on a mounting backlash in the Borders against 'disgraceful' cuts to the education service

SHOPPERS in the Borders last weekend were offered something more than the Big Issue as they entered the supermarket. It may have been a Saturday but teachers and their supporters were out campaigning against cuts in the education budget, distributing leaflets and stepping up pressure on councillors who, next Thursday, are set to axe large tranches of the service.

A Scottish authority, for the first time, is poised to adopt the English solution to budget difficulties running to pound;2.3 million and remove large sections of the non-statutory lifelong learning service and school support network.

Some pound;200,000 was injected back this week after a revolt by backbench councillors and public meetings that attracted hundreds of people. The restoration will save the threatened 40-strong curriculum support service - the visiting teachers of art, physical education and music - who headteachers and others argue are vital to the running of primaries in rural communities.

Nevertheless, Jock Houston, Educational Institute of Scotland spokesman and member of the council's education executive, says the package is "disgraceful".

Leading councillors say they have no choice following `a pound;3.9 million overspend. Education spending is growing by some pound;5 million but expansion means cuts in what are regarded as expendable areas.

Drew Tulley, Independent council leader, and focus of the opposition, is adamant about the cuts and said recently: "You cannot simply say that services should not be cut back: you must be prepared to suggest other ways of remaining within the overall budget."

Mr Tulley is determined the row over excess spending will be wrapped up before he leaves the authority at next year's elections. It is a matter of pride after taking it personally that the crisis arose last year.

Riddle Dumble, Liberal Democrat education convener, holds out little hope of substantially reversing the cuts and insists education has to take its share.

"We are no different from other services. It's just that the sums are larger because we spend more," Mr Dumble said. He accepts the arguments about the losses to continuing education but states: "To achieve the savings we need those are the kinds of areas we have got to look at, sad though it may be."

Mr Houston has other views, as do staff facing redundancy notices. "The overspend was not caused by pupils, parents and teachers. Why should we pay for the mistakes of officials? It's up the the council and Scottish Executive to come up with a package to stop irreparable damage being done," he says.

The authority says it is targeting soft areas but Mr Houston, probably the longest-serving EIS local rep in the country, believes a pound;500,000 proposed cut in devolved school management budgets may hit core staff. He slammed the council's definition of non-core areas as "old-fashioned". Continuing education was vital to the new emphasis on social inclusion and lifelong learning.

Mr Houston welcomes the U-turn over the loss of eight full-time equivalent posts in curriculum support. "One potential wrong has been righted but we have a long way to go yet. The curriculum support team is managed by the advisers and there is still no reprieve for them with nine posts set to go," he says.

While pound;120,000 is being put back into continuing education, it still leaves some pound;480,000 to come out. The pound;20,000 for outdoor education will not eliminate the threat to three full-time jobs, Mr Houston contends.

The 18-strong advisory service will lose around half its posts. Some headteachers are happy to see it pruned, others believe it performs an invaluable service.

Joe Walsh, former senior adviser who retired in January, argues that the curriculum support and advisory services have helped produce a school sector that is sixth in Scotland in terms of exam results.

"They are the easy targets because the public cannot put their finger on them. But as soon as you get right into them, the performance of schools could start to fall. We are going to have trouble enticing people to work in the Borders. We are a laughing stock nationally," Mr Walsh said.

He believes primaries, particularly small rural schools, depend on the additional support, while secondaries have benefited from contributions on exam analysis. Like others, he argues that morale across the service is at "rock bottom".

One primary head describes the continuing uncertainties as a "shambles". Schools were told the minibus service run by continuing education was being discontinued one day only to be told two days later it was not. Consultation is described as poor.

The head argues that curriculum support is valuable but has less support for advisers. "We would probably agree there are too many and their remits are not clear."

Likewise with continuing education, which faces virtual elimination, losing some 40 professional posts. "They tend to be known as the group that runs the minibuses. Their profile has not been particularly high and their role has not been defined clearly. I would think there are savings to be made.

"Having said that, there is the running of youth centres, the management of them and the minibuses and these are all important parts of the service. But could they be run in another way?" Heads continue to complain about swingeing cuts in their own budgets, only redeemed by Scottish Executive cash that has more or less gone directly to schools. "That keeps us afloat," the head says, stressing that the first tranche never reached classrooms.

Advisers do have their supporters, including Paul Cormie, chair of Stow school board. In his campaign against the cuts, Dr Cormie wrote: "The Borders is widely recognised as having one of the best advisory services in Scotland and the quality of these courses, materials and support is such that they are purchased by many other education authorities in Scotland, generating around pound;250,000 per year."

Kayte Halliday, head of Gordon primary, also protested to the authority. "When, as headteachers and class teachers, we look at the papers and documentation arriving each day, we appreciate even more the contribution made by our advisory service and curriculum support staff."

The problem is that those who work in threatened sectors are caught up in a dogfight for survival. "It has got to the stage where we are identifying the back-up staff we would like to keep," a head says sheepishly.

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