Rural schools and free meals face axe

RURAL schools could be closed and free school meals scrapped under draft budget proposals being considered by a council.

The measures have been identified by East Lothian Council as part of plans to slash nearly £600,000 by 2017.

They could also include reviewing free school transport and carrying out an audit of teacher-to-classroom ratios.

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Documents leaked to the Evening News show hundreds of primary school pupils in parts of Musselburgh, Prestonpans and Tranent stand to miss out if the non-statutory meals are withdrawn.

The move has been slammed by SNP councillors, who said the Labour and Conservative council coalition was targeting children in the most deprived parts of the county.

John Williamson, SNP councillor for Musselburgh West, said they were “a lifeline” to some families.

He said: “Free school meals prove really valuable in the most deprived areas and teachers have seen the benefits to children who are getting a decent meal.”

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Education spokesman for the SNP Peter MacKenzie said: “I think that if we were to compromise these radical measures that we introduced in 2010, it would be a very retrograde step and it would affect the poorest members of our communities. We would consider that to be most undesirable.”

The dinners, which are currently free to all primary children in areas of “multiple deprivation”, would save £99,000 over the next two years.

Dunbar and East Linton Councillor Paul McLennan, left, said there were better ways to generate savings than cutting meals, closing schools and potentially axing teachers and free transport.

He said: “It’s a matter of priorities. I was astounded when I read their proposals.

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“We are punishing the areas that need us the most and proposing money for a bowling club and more uplifts. I feel that’s what their priorities are rather than children’s education.”

If smaller schools are earmarked for closure, there are worries Humbie, Stenton and Saltoun primaries could be at risk because of their low pupil numbers.

However, Alastair Beck, community councillor for Humbie, East and West Saltoun and Bolton, said it was vital these schools were maintained for future generations of villagers.

Speaking about Humbie, where both his children attended, he said: “The school is extremely important and the council have always given commitments in the past to maintaining the school. It’s important to the community and I would hope they continue to support it.”

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East Lothian Council leader Willie Innes said rural schools were expensive and the cost to educate each child was significantly higher than at a town school, but said “no-one in the administration was promoting the closure of rural schools”.

A spokeswoman for the council said the budget will be set at a full meeting of the authority on February 12.

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