Education authorities are bracing themselves for funding cuts as Scottish councils put the final touches to budgets for the next financial year.
While directors of education fear their spending power will be curtailed in the forthcoming year, following a tight settlement from the Scottish Executive under the comprehensive spending review last September, many feel that the cuts will be deepest in three years' time, in 2007-08.
This could not be worse timing for the Executive as ministers prepare for the Scottish parliamentary elections.
Roy Jobson, president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said: "For most people the crunch will come not this year but in 2007-08, when a lot of the impact of efficient government savings kicks in from the Chancellor's policy."
He added: "The initial figures indicate that there may be a bit of a problem. On the other hand, we need clarity on a number of issues such as whether these efficiency savings, such as backroom services, are already in the local government settlement, and whether it includes allowances for the target of 53,000 teachers and reductions in class sizes."
Already, Bruce Robertson, director of education in Highland, has warned that his budget, which includes culture and sport, faces a pound;3 million cut in the coming year. This is largely due to pressures in school transport costs, a 20 per cent increase in energy bills for school buildings, and increased special educational needs costs.
He has also warned, however, that devolved school management budgets, and therefore frontline services in schools, face a pound;1m cut next year, which will follow a pound;1.2m cut in the current year. School meals could rise in price by 14 per cent for pupils. This could mean, for instance, that Millburn Academy in Inverness, which has a gross budget of pound;3.5m, could lose pound;24,326 from its budget and have to cut its energy costs by a further pound;7,500.
Andy Anderson, chairman of the council's education, culture and leisure committee, said: "The future looks bleak. Education used to be the top priority for Highland Council, but I wonder if that position is beginning to slip. There will be a lot of pain this time round, but it will be worse in the next two years."
Steven Purcell, Glasgow's education convener, is more optimistic, however.
He said the council's education budget was rising by pound;13m, a large part of that sum financed by McCrone funding for principal teacher posts, and other ring-fenced initiatives such as Sure Start.
Education is being bolstered by cuts elsewhere in the council budget, however, and that money will be used to double the number of nurture classes for vulnerable pupils from 29 to 58, to increase special needs support and to fund more educational psychologists.
Meanwhile, Bill McGregor, general secretary of the Headteachers'
Association of Scotland, warned that his members already had to make budget cuts in the current year, after government demands for efficiency savings, and now faced more of the same.
He said some authorities had tried to meet efficiency savings targets by cutting central staff, but warned: "The days when there was meat available to cut are long gone and they are now cutting bones and in some cases looking at amputations."
HAS is also preparing to iden-tify 11 local authorities which it believes are not funding education fairly, but distributing school budgets among other departments.
Last week, Professor Arthur Midwinter, one of Scotland's leading government finance experts, warned of a national problem in terms of the growing gap between the Scottish Executive's grant-aided expenditure assessment for social work and the actual funding allocated by councils.
Professor Midwinter's report for Aberdeen City Council found that spending on children's social work services was pound;85m, or 35.7 per cent, greater than councils' allocations.
With moves to integrate children's social work and education services, there are growing fears that school budgets could be hit in future as boundaries disappear between what are currently discrete services.
Ewan Aitken, Edinburgh City Council's executive member for children and families and education spokesman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said Edinburgh's move to integrated children's services would mean that separate budgets for education and social work children's services would disappear.
While he welcomed what would be a holistic support service for young people, he nevertheless acknowledged that the removal of ring-fenced budgets - something councils had long argued for - would put some authorities in a more difficult position.
Local authorities, for example, estimate that the legislation on additional support for learning would mean that they had to provide support for 15 per cent of pupils, while the Executive's calculation is that fewer than 1 per cent would be covered.
"We will probably meet somewhere in the middle - but there won't be enough money," Mr Aitken said.
Some councils are already struggling. John Stodter, director of education in Aberdeen, said: "We get the lowest grant per head of population in the whole of Scotland."
He added: "The council overall is trying to save several millions of pounds just to stand still, and education will have to make a significant contribution towards that."