Kerr counts to 10 before he spends

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Scottish Executive ministers have a couple of months to mull over the Chancellor's three-year spending statement before deciding how much should be replicated north of the border.

The most significant educational moves announced by Gordon Brown this week are piloting the extension of free nursery education to 12,000 two-year-olds in 500 disadvantaged areas "of the country", and a pound;100 million plan to build new children's centres which would bring the total to 2,500 by 2008. Another 100,000 new childcare places are also to be funded over that period.

Andy Kerr, Finance Minister, will unveil Scotland's plans in September and has already made clear he will not necessarily follow commitments made for England. Mr Kerr will now have pound;4.2 billion more from the Chancellor to play with over the three-year period, an annual average rise of 3.5 per cent to bring the Scottish budget to a record pound;25.5 million.

Mr Kerr has already hinted strongly that education and skills will be among the winners in his spending review, because of their importance for the Executive's "top priority" of stimulating economic growth. He has already allocated pound;20 million to schools, colleges and universities from the Executive's pound;403 million "end-year flexibility".

It would be surprising if the Executive did not follow some at least of Mr Brown's initiatives, particularly the extension of pre-school education - but this will not command universal approval.

Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland, suggested ministers should concentrate on getting existing policies right first. "More public support for the early years is very welcome, but pilots are not the way forward," Dr Cohen said.

"I would prefer to see the part-time provision for three and four-year-olds made full-time, building on what has already been achieved in Scotland and extending it to the whole day from which many families would benefit."

Greater flexibility over the age at which children start school would also be a significant advance, Dr Cohen suggested.

While Scottish spending is not expected to follow patterns in England, the Chancellor is clearly anticipating that some will since he cited total educational expenditure in the UK as well as in England - the former rising to pound;77 billion by 2007-08, compared with pound;36.5 billion in 1997.

Another initiative to which Mr Brown gave a UK slant was the expansion of the Bookstart scheme to provide 2 million young children a year with free books. The expansion of children's centres aims to provide a centre "in every community and in every constituency in our country", he said, without specifying which country he meant.

Other measures in the spending review include an extension of free museum access to include those run by universities and a national sports foundation to boost private investment in facilities. The Chancellor's statement has also boosted school spending, particularly for primaries, but this appears to be confined to England.

The Sure Start programme for early education and childcare south of the border will rise by pound;769 million by 2008, a 17 per cent increase.

In his response to the UK statement, Tavish Scott, Deputy Minister for Finance, said no more than that the Executive "would continue to invest efficiently and effectively in Scotland's priorities".

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