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When too many facts hide the picture

The Accounts Commission analysis of councils' performance in 1994-95 has been heavily criticised by Scottish authorities for being out of date and reproducing information that is available elsewhere.

The commission's statistical data on school spending refers to the regional and island councils and is two years old. In some council areas the information is said to have no relevance because of local government reorganisation.

A spokeswoman for the commission said the report gave a "retrospective" view about councils' performance. "We are well aware of the difficulties and we will be bringing out a further national report in May or June. This will still relate to the old councils in 1995-96 but we are trying to bring forward the deadlines for councils feeding information back to us," she said.

Some of the information, however, now duplicates other data such as that on school costs published by the Scottish Office Audit Unit, which is only a year out of date. Other indicators fail to give a clear picture of the quality of provision or of value for money, council leaders claim. Lack of information on pupil achievement and on the value which communities place on their schools are further omissions, councils say."

The Accounts Commission tables cover all areas of council activity from the quality of the local water to the number of crimes recorded for every 1, 000 police officers. There are nine indicators of educational performance, ranging from the average time it takes to complete educational needs assessments to "expenditure per square metre of school floor area for repairs and maintenance".

Pre-five statistics found Fife out in front two years ago with 97 per cent of children in primary 1 having enjoyed education department pre-school provision. Fife was followed by Lothian and Dumfries and Galloway at 83 per cent, Central 80 per cent and Orkney 78 per cent. The Western Isles had no council provision and Borders had the poorest record among the remaining authorities with just 41 per cent of its primary 1 population having had pre-school education.

Spending per head on pupils' teaching materials varied much more widely, from Pounds 20 per primary pupil in Fife to Pounds 70 in Shetland and Dumfries and Galloway. The secondary figures reveal an even greater range from Pounds 50 per pupil in Highland to Pounds 150 in the Borders.

Councils argue that the "hidden stories" behind these per capita figures are a particularly compelling illustration of the tables' inadequacies. They point out for example that schools are additionally resourced centrally through teachers' centres and by extra spending on items such as library books and video recorders. Figures can also be affected by the extent to which schools need to replace outdated or worn-out books and equipment.

Strathclyde was revealed as by far the highest spender on school repairs and maintenance, closely followed by Shetland and the Western Isles. This is said to reflect the age and condition of the buildings and factors linked to remoteness. Most authorities spent between Pounds 10 and Pounds 15 per square metre.

The average time spent on special needs assessments appears to be more evenly spread than in 1993-94. Borders took most time at just over 40 weeks while Highland took the least time of 20 weeks. Orkney had been shown as taking 75 weeks the previous year which it managed to reduce to under 40 weeks. But the length of time spent on completing assessments is also subject to special factors. It may not even be a cause for concern, according to Fife, and delays may be in the best interests of the child.

The Accounts Commission's major contribution to date has been to highlight the need to rationalise schools, which it does by keeping track of occupancy rates. Its 1995 report suggested that more than 100 schools could be closed due to surplus capacity. The 1994-95 indicators reveal 207 primary schools were 40 per cent or less occupied, which was 8.9 per cent. In the secondary sector 24 schools or 5.9 per cent were in the same occupancy band.

Despite the wealth of data, however, a survey by the Scottish Local Government Information Unit last year revealed that "there were almost no enquiries from the public in connection with the adverts which local authorities placed in their local area newspapers".

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