'Confirmation of how much we have improved the financial position,' says minister.
Councils have protected schools expenditure for the second year running. But this has been largely due to the Government's extra new deal money which has failed to protect non-school areas of education or jobs.
The annual TES Scotland survey shows educational expenditure by the 32 local authorities for 1998-99 will be pound;2.471 billion after making savings of pound;38 million, an average cut of 1.6 per cent against overall cuts of up to 7.5 per cent. This compares with reductions of pound;80 million in each of the past two years.
A number of authorities have also chosen to boost school spending which, in the case of Aberdeenshire, Clackmannan, Edinburgh and South Lanarkshire, has put them in the unaccustomed position of presiding over net growth in the service. Midlothian, Moray, Orkney and Shetland have not had to make any savings at all. Dumfries and Galloway appears to be the only authority whose budget was trimmed by more than the average for the council as a whole.
Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, said the figures were "welcome confirmation of how much we have improved the financial position of Scottish education against the plans we inherited. I am delighted that there will be real growth in many parts of Scotland and that the great majority of local authorities have given priority to education."
The Liberal Democrats and SNP accentuated the negative, however, criticising the Government's adherence to inherited spending plans. "In Edinburgh, nursery children are going without hot meals because of Labour's cuts," Donald Gorrie, the Liberal Democrats' local government spokesman, said. "In Aberdeen, schools are being closed altogether because of Labour's cuts."
Janet Law, education chair in SNP-controlled Perth and Kinross, said the extra new deal money was "less than the cuts which local authorities are having to make". The council's share of new deal revenue allocations is pound;1.4 million against savings of pound;1.8 million.
It is certainly clear from the survey that many councils would have been in dire straits without the pound;200 million from the Chancellor's "new deal for schools" money. The Government will now come under pressure to extend the extra revenue expenditure, which is for 1998-99 only. Glasgow is already assuming that similar allocations will be available in later years.
At least seven authorities - Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Highland, Midlothian, Orkney, Scottish Borders and Stirling - admit they have soaked up the Chancellor's millions in shoring up budgets.
This is regarded as unwise by some senior councillors. "The money should be used for dedicated and additional purposes," Elizabeth Maginnis, education convener in Edinburgh, said. More than pound;7 million has been added to the capital's education budget.
"If local authorities are not playing their part by spending on the Government's priorities, they may be forced to do so through ring-fencing, which is exactly what the local authorities don't want," Mrs Maginnis said.
But Scottish Borders said that using pound;1 million new deal money to preserve 50 teaching jobs is exactly in line with the Government's policy of targeting "classroom priorities", while Stirling would have had to slash its learning support service by pound;238,000 without the extra cash.
Mr Wilson declined to be drawn and said: "I hope we can now go forward towards a period in which additional resources can, whenever possible, be ploughed into education."
Audrey Findlay, leader of the Liberal DemocratIndependent-controlled Aberdeenshire, which restored pound;2.3 million to reinstate cuts made this year, welcomed the money but the council has still had to axe outdoor education and evening classes.
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