Education scrapes by as councils cut again

14th March 1997 at 00:00
Budget day went off quietly. Despite the cuts forced on councils, most met their targets by the due date last week amid public interest and concern but without disturbance. The exception was Glasgow which missed the official cut-off date and then met amid protests, confusion and alleged intimidation. A second teachers' strike in the city was called off, although most teachers would blame the Government rather than the city for their plight. The aim of the demonstrators on Monday was to pillory spineless councillors.

Our analysis of the new education budgets (pages four and five) shows that once again schools have been protected from the worst. In almost every authority the reduction in spending is less than that for the council as a whole. In some cases the percentage cut is less than half. Even after several years of financial constraints, officials have been able to find savings which protect the central elements of the service.

One director of education claims that an advantage of new small councils is the ability to identify exactly where money is being spent. The opportunity to spot potential savings can be set against loss of economy of scale through reorganisation. Not that the protection of the education service removes all pain. Job vacancies will go unfilled, pupils' experience of school life will be less rich, the cost to parental pockets greater (where paying for, say, music tuition remains an option). Non-statutory areas, especially community education, bear their usual heavy burden. As a national aspiration lifelong learning must be on the retreat.

None the less the Government will say that yet again the councils have cried wolf. The stormy threats of January become the milder days of March as compulsory redundancies vanish and budget cuts are confined to the periphery. George Kynoch, the local government minister, will regard his stance against extra grants as justified. In so far as council tax rises make up some of the missing millions, he will quietly hope, with an eye to the election, that opposition is directed at councils, none of which is Conservative controlled.

The reduced scale of cuts should deceive nobody. When services are withdrawn, the neediest suffer. It will be months before the effects of some reductions are felt. The Educational Institute of Scotland is using the pre-election period to draw attention to the losses facing pupils and parents. Just because the Government has ridden out the immediate storm does not mean that ministers' judgment will be vindicated. As the recent march by teachers and parents in Glasgow showed, the level of concern about funding is as high as a year ago in the massive Edinburgh rally.

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