The government could introduce additional protection for education funding to ensure teacher numbers are maintained, Scotland's finance secretary has hinted.
The ring-fencing of the schools budget was dropped by the SNP after the party came to power in 2007. But John Swinney told the annual conference of the Catholic Head Teachers' Associations of Scotland last week that ministers were "concerned" about the fall in teacher numbers.
Asked if he would consider reintroducing ring-fencing, he told delegates: "You can tell from the fact we have had to intervene that we are concerned about the size of our teaching profession, and we will have to consider that very carefully when we undertake the spending review this summer."
Afterwards, a spokeswoman told TESS: "The Scottish government is firmly committed to having the right number of teachers to improve attainment and close the attainment gap. We have been clear that we do not believe a cut in teacher numbers or an increase in the pupil-teacher ratio would help achieve that."
She added that discussions about teacher pay were ongoing in partnership with unions and local authorities through the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers.
Any moves to reintroduce ring-fencing of the schools budget would be welcomed by the EIS union, according to general secretary Larry Flanagan. The move would ensure "national policies are delivered locally, but also that education funding is not raided" to compensate for cuts in other areas, he said.
Ring-fencing could also be used to protect services such as those for pupils with additional support needs, he added.
According to Mr Swinney, the protection was removed because the government felt it would be beneficial to allow local authorities to make their own decisions. But he clashed with local authorities' body Cosla in February after figures revealed teacher numbers had dropped and class sizes increased, despite the government providing what he described as "specific and sufficient funding" to maintain staffing levels.
In February, he said the decrease had left him with no alternative but to link funding for each council to its willingness to commit to maintaining numbers - and to threaten to claw back a portion of that funding if they failed to deliver.
Later that month, it was announced that all 32 local authorities had signed up to an agreement to maintain teaching posts across Scotland in 2015-16 at the 2014-15 level.
Mr Swinney told delegates at the conference in Crieff that he made "no apology" for the approach he had taken.
Talking about the financial climate, the finance secretary and deputy first minister said he was "under no illusion about the degree of strain" on public servants in recent years regarding pay and conditions. The government had tried to do "as much as we could to stabilise the financial climate", he added.
He also said that statistics showing a small decline in literacy levels compared with 2012, highlighted last month in the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, were "quite good, but not good enough".
"More has to be done," he said. "We all have to work collaboratively. Only by that means can we get all our citizens to reach their potential. Through that we will also be able to find some solutions to the financial pressures. If the teaching profession alone is to try and solve the challenges that face some of our young people in society today, then we are missing a trick because there are other professions that can help."