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Shetland's 'hit squad' allegations are denied

Shetland's education budget remained in limbo this week when no challenge was made at the full council to the decision to hire outside consultants to advise the authority on reducing its educational expenditure, already the highest in Scotland.

Allegations that the external "hit squad" will be furnished with a closure list of up to 10 rural primaries were denied by council leaders.

The council's decision to hire consultants was taken at a highly-charged meeting in early August on the casting vote of Canon Lewis Smith, the convener. It was opposed by the education chairman, Bill Smith, who shows no signs of being reconciled to the move. He said: "I would have preferred doing the exercise in-house in a measured way, recognising that the really big savings cannot be achieved in one year. I don't know of any other authority that has asked for outside help in advising it how to run its education service. The council should have had the courage to set its own priorities."

But Canon Smith insisted that the council was not admitting defeat by calling in consultants to scrutinise education, the first step in a review of all services designed to trim some Pounds 5 million from the council's budget by the year 2000. Councillors were now looking for imaginative ideas from objective sources.

The hiring of consultants is widely seen as a "cop-out," in the words of one senior figure, after a group of councillors sitting as a "service review advisory panel" failed to come up with savings.

Proposals from the director of education for an 8.2 per cent budget cut amounting to Pounds 2 million were spread over two years instead of one, but the budget shortfall still stands at around Pounds 1 million.

Councillors have already failed to close two small primaries on the island of Unst despite the presence of a new school at Baltasound nearby. This led to a plea from Jim Halcrow, the director of education, for some political direction.

But he, the convener and education chairman denied that up to 10 primaries could be candidates for closure. Mr Smith acknowledged, however, that he had heard suggestions "over the tea-cups" that some primaries could be grouped together under one head, although Canon Smith said this might infringe statutory national agreements. The consultants are no strangers to budgetary crises. Neil McIntosh, Strathclyde's former chief executive, and David Alexander, its former senior depute director of education, have seen a few. They will learn their terms of reference after the education committee meets on October 14.

* East Ayrshire faces a mid-year budget crisis to reduce spending by Pounds 660,000, equivalent to a Pounds 1.3 million full-year cut. Departments have been told by the policy and resources committee to find more savings without any specific targets.

These measures are designed to head off a spending deficit of Pounds 1. 6 million, which means that the Labour-controlled authority will go into next year with a deficit ofPounds 1 million. Meeting this shortfall may have to be funded by council tax increases.

Councillors were told that new statistics show East Ayrshire has pockets of the highest unemployment rate of any council in Great Britain.

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