Salmond challenged on nursery teachers

Scottish Labour MSPs attempted to turn up the heat on the First Minister yesterday, accusing Alex Salmond of misleading parliament on nursery teacher numbers.

Labour is scenting blood in harrying the SNP Government on its education policies - access to nursery teachers, class size reductions and free school meals for infants.

The latest cudgel was wielded by Karen Whitefield, the Labour convener of Holyrood's education committee, who remined Mr Salmond of his claim, during First Minister's questions at the end of last month, that the number of nursery teachers was "substantially increasing".

But figures provided to Labour by parliamentary researchers show that the number has in fact decreased in the past year - from 1,685.6 in 2007 to 1,672 in 2008 (expressed as whole-time equivalent figures).

While this represented a decline of only 13.6, Ms Whitefield, who is also Labour's spokesperson for the early years, said it was far from the "substantially increasing" numbers claimed by Mr Salmond. He would have had access to the right figures and his statement amounted to a misleading of parliament, she said.

Mr Salmond appears to have got into trouble because of the different ways in which nursery teacher numbers are counted - headcount of individuals and whole-time equivalent which combines part-time and full-time teachers in the total. Last year, each pre-school centre was asked for a return for the number of teachers who were there during census week. Some would have been "double-counted" because they were providing peripatetic services in more than one place.

A statement from Government officials to the research team said statisticians had been using whole-time equivalent figures "exclusively as their measure for several years". This prompted Labour to suggest Mr Salmond knew the true figure.

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