Council scraps plan to cut additional needs support for vulnerable children

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A CONTROVERSIAl proposal to cut the number of additional needs assistants (ANAs) operating in Borders schools has been ditched by Scottish Borders Council.

Under plans unveiled early in November, the council’s budget management group recommended that £143,000 should be cut in 2011/12 from the learning support service, whose teachers develop individual learning programmes for upwards of 3,000 children with additional needs – from learning disabilities to those in need of speech therapy. The upshot would have been the loss of eight classroom-based ANAs this year, with a further 12 going in the next two years.

Formerly a function of the education department, the service is, under the new integrated children’s services (ICS) regime, now a responsibility of social work which is due to take a hit of over £2million when SBC unveils its austerity budget today (Thursday).

But following an impassioned plea from Councillor Sandy Aitchison (Borders Party), the council agreed, on November 25, to review the ANA recommendation.

He claimed: “Saving money now by reducing learning support will simple create frustrated and disenchanted children growing up into adults who have lost their place in society: an expensive problem to solve.”

And Councillor Catriona Bhatia (Lib Dem) expressed “genuine fears reduced learning support will lead to disruption for all pupils”.

The withdrawal of the £143,000 cut to the ANA budget was confirmed yesterday in a statement from SBC which conceded “disquiet over this saving because of the potential impact on some of the most vulnerable children in the Borders”.

However, the threat to learning support for children with additional needs, with the possibility of reduced hours in several schools, remains.

Councillor Ron Smith, executive member for social work (children’s services), said: “The ICS will be subject to review in 2011 as it will soon have been in operation for a year. I am very pleased to have been able to secure the funds needed to allow us to maintain the current level of service and then to balance improvements and efficiencies in a measured manner in the light of that review”.

Welcoming the decision, social work director Andrew Lowe described ANAs as “a vital part of the life of a school supporting children with all aspects of activity”. He added: “Parents are reassured by their presence as they know their child will get the individual help and support that makes all the difference to their learning.”

Also announced yesterday was additional funding of £150,000 “to enhance the competitiveness and future prosperity of the Borders economy”. It is expected £100,000 will help extend SBC’s small business funding scheme, with the balance used to develop sporting events and tourism activity in the coming year.

However, the ecomonic development boost and the learning support funding reprieve appear little more than sweeteners to the bitter pill of a major package of savings which will be revealed to opposition councillors and the media today and be ratified on February 10 when council tax will be frozen for a fourth successive year.

Reduced support from the Scottish Government has already largely been addressed with the £6million November savings package, which will include an average 5 per cent cut in departmental spending coupled to increased charges for services, such as frozen meals for the elderly,

Attempts by TheSouthern this week to discover the detail of how the council will find the required balance of cuts – understood to be £1.6million – were unsuccessful with SBC leader David Parker confirming: “All I can say is that the administration has agreed a set of proposals that delivers a balanced revenue budget and a five-year capital programme,

“In the face of significant budget reductions, we have sought to protect, maintain and even improve services.”

The public, however, will have the chance to quiz senior councillors and officials on the detailed spending programme at meetings in Galashiels council chambers on February 2, Selkirk Argus Centre on February 7 and Kelso Tait Hall on February 8. All meetings start at 7pm.