An unusual alternative to the issuing of hardship grants for pupils' clothing and footwear is to be tested in South Ayrshire in a move which is certain to be followed with interest by other education authorities, writes Neil Munro.
Mike McCabe, the council's director of education, believes his department's plan to put the business out to tender could prove to be "the acceptable face of education vouchers." The experiment has still to be approved by South Ayrshire's Labour-run administration.
He denied the idea was motivated by a desire to save money. Retailers will be asked, however, to submit tenders of Pounds 160,000 a year against the current annual cost of Pounds 230,000. Families would then be issued with gift vouchers.
Mr McCabe added: "We are, of course, interested in making our budget go as far as we can and, if we are able to negotiate as attractive a discount as possible while not having an adverse impact on families in need, we think that is a clever way of using the purchasing power of a local authority to maximum advantage. Guaranteed business of Pounds 160,000 a year for three years is a substantial sum for any company."
If other councils were to follow South Ayrshire's lead, there would be steady pickings for commercial outlets. Local authorities are spending Pounds 11 million this year on footwear and clothing grants. Some 4,600 South Ayrshire pupils alone receive the grants. At the other extreme, 60 per cent of Glasgow's 82,000 pupils get footwear and clothing allowances.
Mr McCabe said he was attracted to the idea because it would get rid of the stigma associated with clothing grants. A gift voucher would have the added advantage that it could only be spent on clothing and footwear whereas there were no guarantees that the council grants, which were set at Pounds 50 per child in the former Strathclyde area, would be spent properly.
Mr McCabe said he had already explored the possibilities of the scheme with a number of retailers and the response had been "very positive" Mr McCabe added: "I anticipate that there will be scope for some very significant savings without reducing the subsidy to those families in need."