Local authorities across Scotland are in the dark about whether they will lose out on millions of pounds, after teacher numbers dipped in nearly a third of council areas.
Annual school statistics published by the Scottish government today show that the overall number of teachers is almost exactly the same as last year – 50,717 compared with 50,720 – and the pupil-teacher ratio has remained steady at 13.7.
But teacher numbers have dropped slightly in 10 authorities: Aberdeen, Argyll and Bute, Clackmannanshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Glasgow, Moray, North Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire, Scottish Borders and Stirling. The steepest decline is by 3.5 per cent in Argyll and Bute.
The Scottish government warned the country’s 32 councils earlier this year that they would lose out on a share of a £51 million funding pot if they did not maintain teacher numbers.
The move was highly controversial as councils argued that it did not take into account local circumstances such as falling school rolls, and that even if they did everything in their power to maintain teacher numbers they might still fall short.
When asked today if these councils would lose out on a share of the £51 million, a Scottish government spokesman said: “This government is committed to ensuring we have the right number of teachers, with the right skills, in the right places to educate our young people. No decisions on the funding provided to maintain teacher numbers will be taken before the budget statement next week.”
Councils have repeatedly expressed concerns about effectively being forced to maintain teacher numbers. The figures are measured on a “census day” each September, but critics say numbers can fluctuate quickly and a shortfall one day might be a surplus the next. Some sources have suggested that councils could feel pressure to maintain numbers through artificial means, for example by temporarily drafting in qualified teachers from non-teaching council jobs.
A spokesman for local authorities body Cosla today took aim at the “crazy, simplistic ill-thought-through policy” on teacher numbers, and insisted that there was “absolutely no suggestion” that any council had let down its children educationally.
He added: “At Cosla we are totally disinterested in these numbers, which are nothing more than a snapshot in time which tells us nothing about the quality of education. It is becoming increasingly embarrassing that we continue to focus so hard on delivering a target which is so educationally irrelevant.”
The EIS teaching union, in contrast, has welcomed the national figures. General secretary Larry Flanagan said maintaining teacher numbers was “key to ensuring a consistent, high-quality, educational experience for pupils” across Scotland.
But he noted the fall in teacher numbers in some council areas was “in breach of individual agreements” the Scottish government had struck with each local authority, and added: “This confirms the need for a nationally agreed minimum staffing standard to ensure consistent levels of provision across Scotland.”
The NASUWT union said that the national maintenance of teacher numbers "masks a more complex picture", with several local authorities seeing an increase in pupil-teacher ratios. There was a “worrying” rise in teachers on temporary contracts and a fall in teachers in the preschool sector, it added.
Earlier this year Aberdeen – one of the councils which fell short today – held a summit where several authorities discussed their problems in recruiting teachers. The city’s high property prices and the lure of the oil and gas industry have created added difficulties. North-east councils have tried recruiting teachers from Canada and Ireland, as well as offering “golden hellos” and subsidised accommodation, and Aberdeen has even mooted the idea of paying teachers more in parts of Scotland where the price of living is high.
Contrastingly, in recent evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee, Shetland Islands Council leader Gary Robinson said that the national directive on preserving teacher numbers had resulted in his authority taking on staff it did not need.
Last month it emerged that Andrew Sutherland, North Lanarkshire’s executive director of learning and leisure services, had been suspended pending an internal investigation into “the maintenance and accuracy of data on numbers of teaching staff”.
The local authorities where the numbers have fallen:
Teacher numbers 2014
Teacher numbers 2015
Argyll and Bute
Dumfries and Galloway