Four councils face the blame
The Education Secretary pointed the finger of blame at four councils for being responsible for nearly half the 1,000 drop in teacher numbers announced this week.
As Fiona Hyslop faced calls for her resignation amid opposition claims that the SNP had broken one of its key election pledges on maintaining teacher numbers and cutting class sizes, she sought to deflect the flak by naming and shaming Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and Aberdeen.
She identified these authorities as being the main culprits for the drop of 975 pre-school, primary, secondary and special needs teachers and visiting specialists employed in 2008, compared to the previous year. Given the climate of partnership working under the concordat between local and national government, it was not clear how Ms Hyslop intended to persuade these and other councils to boost teacher employment.
Aberdeen City Council (Lib DemSNP), with its inherited multi-million pound deficit, is seen as being a "one-off" in terms of local government finance; the problems of Renfrewshire Council (SNPLib Dem) are put down to its significant population decrease; and the Scottish Government sees Labour-led Glasgow City Council as a renegade authority. It is understood Ms Hyslop plans to hold meetings with North Lanarkshire Council (also Labour) to try and get to the root of its declining teacher population.
Meetings are planned with all four councils and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to address the issue of teacher employment.
Isabel Hutton, Cosla's education spokesperson, cast doubt on the reliability of the figures. "It is clear from our discussions with member councils that the figures may not be as robust as we would expect," she said. "We know that in the last few days, substantial adjustments had to be made to the figures for two councils - these represented a swing of 300 from two areas. We need to clarify the figures before we engage in a policy discussion."
"We need robust statistics but we also need an accurate understanding of council budgets, the pressure they are under and why they have made the decisions they have made."
Ms Hyslop defended her government's record by focusing on pupil-teacher ratios: "These figures demonstrate that for the second year in a row, teacher numbers are delivering a historic low pupil-teacher ratio in Scotland - in primary and secondary schools - with the overall pupil- teacher ratio at just 13.1.
"They are by far the lowest in the UK, and primary class sizes are also at a record low in Scotland."
The Educational Institute of Scotland, however, argued that the fact that teacher to pupil ratios had remained unchanged in the last year was a sign that average class sizes also remained unchanged over this period. "This highlights that the Scottish Government's strategy of simply relying on falling pupil numbers and holding teacher numbers in order to lower class sizes is just not working," said Ronnie Smith, the union's general secretary. He urged the Government to step up its efforts to meet its commitments on teacher numbers and class size cuts.
"It is important to remember that these statistics highlight teacher numbers that were set early last year, before the true scale of the economic crisis and associated cuts to local authority budgets became clear.
"There is very real concern that we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg, and that worse is yet to come as local authorities look to implement further cuts in their education budgets for next year and beyond," he warned.
Separate statistics, published this week by the Government, showed there was a 3.3 per cent increase in overall local authority revenue spending on education, equating to a 0.3 per cent real terms increase.
There was an 11 per cent increase in capital spending on primary and secondary, and a 17 per cent increase in special education; the figures do not include PPP (public private partnership) payments.