Fury over `bribe' to opt out

30th August 1996 at 01:00
Councils fear plans to cut thousands of empty desks have been thrown into jeopardy. The Government's handout to the tiny St Mary's Episcopal primary in Dunblane following a decision to opt out of local authority control is more than the entire capital programme for Stirling Council's schools, it has been revealed.

News that the Secretary of State had released Pounds 575,000 to upgrade the school, which has 51 pupils and had been threatened with closure, rekindled bitter resentment among local councillors and officials who say it has undermined plans to close other schools.

Members of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities' education forum, meeting in Edinburgh last Friday, expressed dismay when they heard of the handout from Pat Kelly, who chairs Stirling's children's committee. Charles Gray, education chairman in North Lanarkshire, suggested legal advice should be sought on challenging the Secretary of State in the courts.

The decision was defended by Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, who said the need for major refurbishment at St Mary's had been acknowledged for many years. The cash will provide a third classroom, nursery spaces and toilet, storage and office facilities. Capacity will rise to 60 pupils.

Mr Kelly, however, said that the cash was "a bribe" to boost the number of opted-out schools. Malcolm Green, chairman of Glasgow's education committee, which suffered a debacle in its attempts to close schools against parent resistance, said councils had been left virtually powerless.

"The legislation can frustrate the best of local authorities' intentions and the most clear and consistent policies," Dr Green protested.

Elizabeth Maginnis, who chairs the education committee in Edinburgh, another city forced to abandon a closures programme, warned that the Secretary of State's move to prevent parents instigating an opt-out ballot after an education authority formally announced rationalisation proposals would simply accelerate the process.

Councils are forced to freeze procedures for closing a school until the outcome of a ballot is known. A successful vote then has to go to the Secretary of State for adjudication. John Kemp, education convener in Dundee, whose closures plans have been hit by an opt-out campaign at Rockwell High, said the new legislation "would cause some schools to leap before they are pushed, trying to second-guess the intentions of local authorities and seek to opt out as an insurance policy".

This week Moray Council's education committee refused to contemplate the closure of 10 primary schools. Margo Howe, who chairs the committee, confirmed that at least one school board had considered opting out in response to "irresponsible" rumours of a secret council hit list. A similar rumour-mill had led to parents at Fort William primary voting in favour of self-governing status.

Ken Corsar, Glasgow's director of education, issued a stark warning that parental disenchantment with local authorities would accelerate if continuing under-investment in schools was not reversed.

Council's inability to reinvest savings from closures meant they were "having to limp into the process", Dr Green said.

SNP says no, page 4

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