Strict rules that require authorities to protect the number of teachers that they employ have led to cuts in vital support staff, MSPs have heard.
Councils have warned that the directive to maintain teacher numbers has led to cuts in classroom assistants, clerical staff, school transport and housing, which they fear will adversely affect the education of some of their most deprived children.
Children with special needs were also at risk of losing out as cuts were made to staff charged with supporting their learning, they said.
Gary Robinson, leader of Shetland Islands Council, told the Scottish Parliament’s education and culture committee that his authority’s grant had reduced by 19 per cent since 2010 and that it now employed about 600 fewer full-time equivalent staff.
“I do not have statistics on how that breaks down in the education service, but I am certain that it means fewer clerical assistants and classroom assistants in schools, and a smaller reduction, by comparison, in additional support for learning,” he said.
East Ayrshire councillor Stephanie Primrose, a former teacher, and education spokeswoman for local government body Cosla, said that her authority was “going to struggle to keep teaching assistants”.
They are essential for schools to function at their best, and particularly important for children with “very specific needs”, perhaps involving autism and dyslexia, she said.
“Without those classroom assistants, the outcomes for those young people would not have been the same, regardless of how hard I tried,” said Ms Primrose.
East Ayrshire has had to cut school transport – a service that is “fundamental to closing the attainment gap” – in order to maintain teacher numbers, she said, adding that she expected the situation to get worse.
“Even though we have the staff to teach the pupils, we might not be able to get those pupils in [to school],” she said. Councillor Shamin Akhtar, a member of East Lothian Council, said that education’s protected status had forced a raft of voluntary early retirements elsewhere, resulting in the loss of 100 staff across the authority.
“We must not lose sight of the wider picture,” she said. “If we want to address issues of attainment and achievement, we must ensure that children are living in safe, clean homes, that there are the proper support services for their family, that they are free of antisocial behaviour and that they have the opportunity to go out and play and visit libraries and so on.”
‘Things will get worse’
Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur, a member of the education and culture committee, said evidence suggested that maintaining pupil-to-teacher ratios led to a reduction in the number of classroom assistants, janitors, catering staff and other school support staff.
The situation, he said, was likely to get worse, even though the committee had never received figures on those losses.
Cutting those lower-paid school jobs “might be working against the grain of efforts to close the attainment gap”, he said.
Such a warning met with an angry response from SNP MSP James Dornan, who said it was a “great shock” that, in his view, the importance of teachers was being played down by the councils’ representatives.
“I am sorry, but there seems to be a lot of talk about not wanting to lose teachers, but I am also hearing that because you are having to hire teachers you are having to get rid of classroom assistants,” he said. “That does not suggest to me that you see teachers as playing a primary role in education.”
Meanwhile, councils said that it was not logical to have a national directive to maintain teacher numbers because of widely differing local demand around the country. Mr Robinson said that Shetland had ended up having to employ three teachers that it “did not especially need” in order to avoid funding being clawed back – at a time when other authorities were struggling to recruit.
The numbers involved