The future of a West Dunbartonshire project, described as the best Neet initiative in Scotland, hangs in the balance.
Its fate will be a major test of the Scottish Government's resolve to broaden educational opportunities beyond traditional subject boundaries in financially straitened times.
West Dunbartonshire outdoor education service is the only one in Scotland to act as a presenting centre for Scottish Qualifications Authority units. Its ETEN project (Education, Training, Employment - Now) has provided courses at Access 3 and Intermediate 1 in orienteering, canoe sport, mountain biking and climbing. It has won universal plaudits for firing the enthusiasm of disillusioned youngsters, reducing exclusion rates, and improving behaviour and attendance.
Funding has come entirely from the Government's More Choices, More Chances pot for young people in danger of falling out of education, employment or training. Some pound;150,000 was allocated for 2007-08, and pound;90,000 this year, but the cash runs out at the end of April.
ETEN will end immediately if alternative revenue is not found, even though work has been completed to increase the number of subjects from four to 12. The qualifications will still be available - and three schools have indicated they hope to sign up some pupils - but schools would now have to pay for the expensive courses.
While the council will still receive some More Choices, More Chances funding, it says national advice dictates that this go to programmes directly helping over-16s into work, education or training. The Government insists that it remains committed to broadening opportunities for young people of all ages.
Schools have praised ETEN's impact. Dumbarton Academy allows pupils out of school for one day each throughout the year for their outdoor subjects, because it helped their confidence grow and parents had bought into the idea, says Bev Paterson, principal teacher of pupil support. The project has also received an excellence award from Cosla.
West Dunbartonshire's senior outdoor education officer, John Hamilton - chair of the Scottish advisory panel for outdoor education - has been contacted by six other local authorities which hope to provide SQA units in the same way. The SQA has asked him to make presentations in Ayr, Glasgow and Inverness, highlighting good practice such as the innovative use of video for assessment.
The project's success has resulted in plans to reach more pupils through Intermediate 2 courses, which have already been prepared.
HMIE is considering using it as an exemplar of how outdoor learning can support Curriculum for Excellence learning outcomes.
ETEN has until now targeted the lowest-performing 20 per cent of pupils. In the last two years, 168 awards have been made to young people passing SQA units in orienteering, mountain biking and canoe sport, with few failures. Another 25 are participating in what looks like being the final course, a climbing unit which finishes next month. Many more wish to sign up next year if the project continues.
"They're going to be devastated if we can't carry it on," said Mr Hamilton, who would have to lay off three staff since ETEN represents half of the outdoor education service's entire work.
Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith, whose party secured funding for outdoor education in this year's national budget, was "deeply concerned" and seeking an "urgent" meeting with Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop. "Some of the most valuable education work in Scotland will be lost if programmes such as ETEN are starved of necessary funding," she said.
Independent MSP Margo MacDonald described ETEN in the Scottish Parliament as the best Neet project she had encountered. She told The TESS that delaying intervention until 16 would miss the chance to engage students when they were more receptive. She stressed that, regardless of where ultimate responsibility lay for distributing funding, if there was a will in Government to save ETEN, then it would survive.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said funding for West Dunbartonshire in 2009-10 had increased by 6.9 per cent to pound;230.7 million. "It is for West Dunbartonshire Council to decide at a local level how best to use these substantial additional resources and how to implement their own strategy for young people in need of More Choices, More Chances," she said.
"We know that West Dunbartonshire's single outcome agreement includes the national indicator on positive and sustained destinations for young people, and this will be a key measure of their efforts to reduce the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training."