Councils on the breadline

13th November 2009 at 00:00
As authorities announce money-saving plans, some schools cut free bread and milk at lunch

MSPs are to launch an inquiry into education funding as teachers brace themselves for unprecedented budget cuts throughout the country.

In the past week, a number of councils have announced plans to cut staffing, close schools, and save money by measures including the removal of free bread and milk from primary pupils' lunches and an end to free swimming lessons.

East Lothian has mooted plans to place schools in an educational trust, or trusts, which would give them access to additional funding from other sources and could exempt them from paying rates.

Parent councils, meanwhile, claim they are having to fund some of the basic necessities for cash-strapped schools.

The convener of the Parliament's education committee said the introduction of the concordat, which led to the removal of ring-fenced budgets, had made effective scrutiny "impossible".

"It was never easy to see how previous governments spent that money but now, because it's rolled up in the concordat in one settlement, it's even more difficult," said Labour MSP Karen Whitefield.

"My fear is that the overall grant that goes to each council disguises substantial cuts in funding in education and children's services."

As part of its inquiry, the committee plans to investigate spending in specific areas, including additional support for learning and continuing professional development.

Ms Whitefield continued: "Where there have been specific commitments made around funding, we will try to follow that funding down from central to local government to the reality of whether people are able to access it."

She was speaking at Children in Scotland's annual conference in East Kilbride last week at the first meeting of a new children's sector forum.

That conference also heard from Kate Higgins, a policy officer with the organisation For Scotland's Disabled Children, that an additional pound;34 million destined for the support of disabled children had "just disappeared".

Ms Higgins said that, under the Barnett formula, 10 per cent of pound;340m funding from the Treasury for England's Aiming High for Disabled Children programme, had been passed on to the Scottish Government, but the money had gone into the general local authority "pot". Her organisation will soon launch a campaign to find the "missing millions", she said.

Last week, a report from the Auditor General for Scotland said the public sector was under the greatest financial pressure since devolution 10 years ago. By 2013-14, the gap between planned Scottish Government spending and the money available could be between pound;1.2 and pound;2.9 billion.

Robert Black, the Auditor General, said "efficiency savings" alone would not be enough and he echoed Ms Whitefield's concerns when he noted that "the Scottish public sector needs much better information that links its spending with actual service delivery, costs and performance".

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