Nursery teachers are set to disappear completely from preschool classrooms in one Scottish council by the end of the summer, as numbers elsewhere across the country continue to dwindle, TESS can reveal.
Angus is thought to be the first council to cut the posts altogether but numbers have fallen in other authorities too, with staff replaced by less costly "senior early years practitioners".
By the end of the summer, Angus Council hopes to have transferred all its nursery teachers to primary classrooms in a bid to save pound;119,000 in 2014- 15. It estimates that the total saving over the life of the policy will be closer to pound;370,000.
The news comes just weeks after an early years expert warned that nursery teachers were in danger of disappearing from preschool education altogether unless the government changed the law to protect them.
Professor Aline-Wendy Dunlop, a vice-president of the British Association for Early Childhood Education, argued for a mix of early years practitioners and nursery teachers, who she said provided vital "pedagogical leadership".
An Angus Council spokeswoman said that all preschool classes would continue to "have access" to a teacher and that clear guidance would be issued on how that would be achieved.
"There is a high priority on ensuring there is coherence and continuity in children's education," she said.
Scottish government figures show that in August 2010 there were 23 nursery teachers working in Angus but by last year only five remained. The statistics also show that more than 70 per cent of preschool children in the authority had access to a teacher last year. However, just 6 per cent of centres were found to have regular access - the lowest proportion in Scotland. The remainder received only "ad hoc support".
Other councils where nursery teacher numbers are in single digits include Argyll and Bute, which has nine, and Moray, Stirling and West Dunbartonshire, which have eight each.
By contrast, Scotland's smallest mainland authority, Clackmannanshire, announced last year that it was transferring staff from its primaries to nurseries in a bid to double the number of nursery teachers working in its preschools. Numbers rose from 11 in 2012 to 16 in 2013. However, no further increase was planned for this year, a council spokeswoman said.
The news comes as the government announced that a review of the preschool workforce was to be carried out by a former nursery teacher. Early years education expert Professor Iram Siraj-Blatchford of the University of London's Institute of Education has been set the task to ensure that the sector is ready for the expansion of free nursery hours in August.
Scotland's largest teaching union, the EIS, meanwhile added its own call for the government to bring in legislation to protect nursery teachers. It recently lost a legal battle against Glasgow City Council to overturn the appointment of non-teachers as nursery school leaders.
Responding to the cuts in Angus, EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: "This is the beginning of the trend towards local authorities bypassing the government's policy on meaningful access to a nursery teacher."
He said that the union had written to education secretary Michael Russell, "indicating that legislation is required if the government's policy of access to a teacher is to be delivered".
The revelations about the loss of nursery teachers in Angus came as the vast majority of Scottish councils were agreeing their budgets for 2014- 15.
As well as cutting nursery teacher posts, Angus Council said it would be reducing the training budget for its preschools, primaries and secondaries, losing foreign language assistants and removing pound;12,000 from its music instruction service.
The authority is seeking to trim pound;23 million from its budget over the next three years. Finance convener Alex King warned that completing future budgets would be "even more difficult".
"Angus Council has now reached the position where the services it provides must be either statutory or must be subject to a stringent assessment of actual need in the case of services which are discretionary," he said.
And Angus is not alone. In many councils, more cash is set to disappear from school budgets, with less available to spend on staff and supplies, continuing professional development and support staff. Even the amount spent on cleaning buildings and maintaining school grounds has been affected.
Education directors, however, warn that in the future far more radical savings will have to be made.
Bruce Robertson, education policy adviser at the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said: "The salami slicing approach taken so far cannot continue. The sums that have to be saved are so big more radical approaches are needed."
One such idea would be to remove education from local authority control, he suggested.
A spokesperson for the Scottish government said it "appreciated" the important role played by teachers as part of the "wider team" in early years settings.
The government has said it will invest pound;460,000 over the next two years in developing early years teaching, including supporting additional postgraduate places for primary teachers wishing to specialise in early years.