Lilias Noble, director of the voluntary organisation LEAD Scotland (Linking Education and Disability), told the Partners in Learning conference, which gathered participants from the voluntary sector, local authorities and the Scottish Office: "These are troubled times for the voluntary sector in Scotland." Funding cutbacks ranged from 5 to 50 per cent, she said.
The increased number of education authorities also meant that more resources and time had to be devoted to seeking finance, Ms Noble said, and this was becoming disproportionate to the funds that were being secured. Ms Noble said that "the chaos of local government reorganisation" was the single most important issue now facing the voluntary sector.
The general air of gloom was reinforced by Douglas Sinclair, secretary general of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.
Mr Sinclair warned that the situation would be worse next year, and said that many councils had failed to think through the implications of not providing stable budgets. The new authorities had failed to honour existing agreements, which was seen as an act of bad faith by voluntary organisations.
But Mr Sinclair joined the Scottish Office representatives in trying to reassure voluntary organisations that they were valued, as collaborators with local authorities "to empower people through education and training".
Duncan Kirkpatrick HMI said that he hoped the conference, a follow-up to the Partners in Learning report published by the inspectorate in March, would be the first of many examining the increasingly important relationship between the statutory and voluntary sectors in community education, .
That message was underlined by the presence at the conference of Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector of schools, who expressed the official view that "no sector has a monopoly on learning." The value of the voluntary sector, he said, lay in its flexibility and specialised staff.
Mr Osler said that financial rigour could help organisations to focus on the needs that they had to meet. He believed savings could be found by reducing administrative staff and eradicating overlaps.
But this week's report from the Commission on Scottish Education (see page 5) backs the pessimists, warning that the "enormous financial difficulties which the new councils are facing present obvious dangers to both community education and the voluntary organisations."
The report continues: "We would argue that, if councils are serious about taking forward their strategies on lifelong learning and the empowerment of communities, they cannot afford to treat these vulnerable services harshly. "