Bordering on a crisis

13th July 2001 at 01:00
You cannot fault the director of education in the Scottish Borders Council for lack of honesty. John Christie's report to councillors last week painted a picture of an authority almost completely unaware of how it was spending money (page 5). There was no proper accountability, budget changes failed to be reflected in how services were delivered and data problems crept in (now where have we heard that before?) As a result, schools have been left to pick up the pieces of what Mr Christie himself admitted would be "severe and far-ranging" cuts to try to repair the damage. Meanwhile, the public is left bewildered as to how an education department could have gone into the red by almost pound;4 million over two years.

Like other councils, Scottish Borders prepared regular monitoring reports on its spending during the course of the financial year. These apparently showed some overshooting under various budget headings, but the extent of the crisis was not evident. Officials may be forgiven for asking "crisis, what crisis?" over a pound;4 million deficit in an education budget of more than pound;60 million. But the picture will not look so crisis-free to the schools.

No doubt there will be calls for heads to roll. But whose? The education director and chairman obviously carry immediate responsibility (although the latter seems to have been sidelined in a council restructuring). But what was the finance department doing and where was the chief executive?

One of the striking features of this whole saga is the blame being attached to "demand-led" services for exceeding their budgets - special needs, transport, catering. This was reinforced by an income shortfall on the other side of the balance sheet as parents opted to send their pre-school children to the private or voluntary sectors. The resourcing of devolved management to schools also appears to have been out of kilter with the authority's budgetary planning. But other councils must face the same unpredictability in anticipating demand for their services. It is therefore difficult to understand why Scottish Borders should have been uniquely stung. Are there other councils in the same position? Or do they simply have more creative accountants?

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