Successive years of cuts may be behind the "levelling out" of pupils' Higher grade results, according to Shelagh Rae, president of the Association of Directors of Education. Teachers and councils all too often shouldered the blame for standards but ministers had to accept responsibility for inadequate funding.
Addressing her association's annual conference in Dunblane, Mrs Rae claimed the "parlous state" of council spending was affecting their ability "to maintain far less raise standards". In the past two years, 700 teachers' jobs and 500 support jobs had vanished in the cuts totalling Pounds 160 million.
"I was struck recently by the irony of HMI reviewing the effectiveness of arrangements the new councils have put in place to develop and support the curriculum, provide relevant and effective staff development and support and monitor schools in improving the quality of education at a time when successive budget savings have cut education support services to the bone," she stated.
Although the Government had injected Pounds 59 million into revenue spending next year, this was offset by the refusal to fund pay awards for the fifth year running. Mrs Rae, director in Renfrewshire, continued: "To put this in stark reality, the additional funding for education, to be spent on specific priorities, is in danger of being outweighed by the cuts required to balance the council's budget. There is also the danger that in the difficult choices facing councils, not providing additional resources for education may prove an easier option than cutting services elsewhere."
The association could take credit for outlining to the Scottish Office the new burdens placed on authorities and the cost of improving school buildings. To be fair, she said, ministers had responded by finding extra for early intervention, pre-five training, building repairs and the revenue budgets.
But Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, offered little prospect of alleviating the harsher decisions that stem from the overall cuts in local government spending. The extra Scottish Office education spending represented an increase of 3.8 per cent and he hoped to "help and protect" education within what he admitted was a difficult financial situation.
John Stodter, Aberdeen, challenged the minister to say how the additional cash injection would prevent him shedding "significant numbers of teachers' jobs" in the spring just to stay within budget.
Mr Wilson replied: "Within a short time, we've put a lot of extra money into Scottish education compared to what our predecessors had intended."
In a private session, education directors were told by local government experts not to expect any policy reversal over the coming years. The Scottish Office block would continue to fall due to population and funding formulae and with it, total council spending. Around Pounds 800m and 11,000 jobs had been cut from councils in two years.
"The Scottish Office view is what's the difference on the ground?" according to one adviser who believes local authorities should now admit publicly they will have to do less. Some services may go to preserve others.
* Government advisers are in danger of creating "an unnecessarily over-complex, potentially bureaucratic and incomprehensible" set of indicators to allow comparisons of school performance, Keir Bloomer, director of education in Clackmannan, warned.
Ministers want to contrast the performance of similar schools, taking account of socio-economic factors, but Mr Bloomer cautioned against detailed school analysis based on "rough and ready" indicators such as free school meals.
* A Scottish parliament is unlikely in the short-term to remove powers over education from local authorities, Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, stated.
It would be "paradoxical" if power was centralised under the parliament.
Mr Wilson also promised councils they would not be seeing "flurries of initiatives every week, even in the week before the party conference".