Raymond Robertson told the union bluntly to concentrate its fire on improving the efficiency of the education service "rather than obstructing it".
This drew a furious response from Ronnie Smith, EIS general secretary, who accused Mr Robertson of "venting his spleen on teachers, the clearest indication yet that his Government is in its final, dying throes".
Mr Smith commented: "It flies in the face of reason and all the evidence that Mr Robertson should accuse teachers today of 'obstructing' the 'means of service delivery' when published statistics point to the high quality of work going on in schools in all parts of the country.
"In his astonishing outburst Mr Robertson chooses to ignore the figures issued by his own department which show the remarkable performance of schools and the ever improving standards as measured by the exam results of Scottish pupils. "
Mr Robertson, responding to a letter sent by Mr Smith at Christmas to the Secretary of State, defended the Government's funding record on education. He said Scottish Office support for councils through the grant-aided expenditure settlement for 1997-98 was almost Pounds 117 million more than the current year, a 2.2 per cent increase He said an extra Pounds 29 million had been found despite "a very tough public expenditure round". This left Government-supported expenditure for councils 30 per cent higher than the English figure and 22 per cent higher than in Wales.
Support for local education expenditure in particular would amount to Pounds 2.3 billion in the coming year, an increase of more than Pounds 40 million. But Mr Robertson acknowledged that Pounds 13.3 million of the extra sum was mandatory expenditure on school security.
Mr Smith retorted: "If councils are being treated 'fairly', how can Mr Robertson explain that 1,500 teaching jobs are under threat? How can he explain that a dozen councils to date are, for the first time in the history of Scottish education, threatening the compulsory redundancy of teachers? How can he explain the need to close schools on purely financial grounds without regard to the wishes of parents or the needs of communities? How can he explain why class sizes in Scotland are going up and are set to rise still further with the scale of cuts proposed?
"How can he explain why he ignores the pleas from councils which have identified the need for additional Pounds 44 million to fund new developments, including the Government's own Higher Still proposals, thus ensuring that the stated date of implementation (1998) grows less and less realistic by the day?" Mr Robertson points out, however, that the Scottish Office will have invested Pounds 10 million in the Higher Still programme by the end of this financial year in March; a further Pounds 4 million has been committed for next year mainly for teaching materials, assessment support and staff development.
The minister suggested the 5-14 programme could not continue to be regarded as "a new change" since substantial progress has already been made, particularly in English and maths. Its phased introduction should make it "manageable" within the curriculum and staff development resources included in the general local government settlement, Mr Robertson added.
But Mr Smith challenged the assumption that the 5-14 reform was nearly complete. Its extension into secondary and the seven other areas of the curriculum is "very far indeed from completion".
The EIS and the minister finally traded blows on teachers' pay, as Mr Robertson reiterated that pay rises must be paid for by reductions in teaching posts.