The Scottish Government will claw back money given to councils to maintain teacher numbers if it is used elsewhere.
Reports in recent months have suggested local authorities may be forced to cut teachers, support assistants and school hours due to budgetary concerns.
But Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville – along with the First Minister – said such a move would not be acceptable, vowing to put in place measures to stop any reduction in teacher numbers.
Speaking to MSPs on Tuesday, Ms Somerville said if any of the £145.5 million earmarked for teachers and support staff in the next financial year was spent elsewhere, the Scottish Government would “withhold or recoup” funding.
Ms Somerville also announced plans to legislate for a minimum number of school hours per year to stop councils cutting class time to save money, using ministerial powers – subject to MSP approval.
“My immediate concern is the threat that the numbers of teachers and support staff may start to fall in the next financial year, as a result of council budget decisions,” she said.
“I wish to avoid such an outcome.”
The Education Secretary added that funding had been agreed with local councils to maintain the number of teachers and support staff and ensuring places for probationary teachers were available.
“In the year ahead, where these criteria are not met by a local authority, we will withhold or recoup funding that’s been given to local authorities for these purposes,” she said.
“I know this decision may not be welcomed by local government, but I have a very clear commitment to improve Scottish education, which we are making good progress (on).
“I’m firmly of the view we will not do that by having fewer teachers or support staff, or less time in schools.”
Scottish Tory education spokesman Stephen Kerr said the decision “destroys what little good faith still exists between councils and the Scottish Government”.
The announcement, he said, would lead to deep cuts that would impact on children, to things like swimming classes, after-school clubs and school meals.
“The Cabinet Secretary is responsible for making our country a poorer place to be a child and a young person,” he said.
“She won’t fight for them, all the evidence tells us that she doesn’t fight for children and young people’s interests around the cabinet table.
“Can she honestly say that this announcement will have a positive impact on children in Scotland?”
Ms Somerville said Mr Kerr and the Tories should come forward with cuts to services they would like to allow more funding to be given to local councils, adding: “Otherwise, this is bluster in the chamber and no benefit to children and young people.”
Michael Marra – Labour’s education spokesman – said there was “blind panic in the government and chaos in council chambers”.
He added that council chief executives have told members it was not possible to re-draw their budgets at this stage of the financial year.
“This statement is woeful, it offers zero clarity to parents, pupils, teachers or to taxpayers,” he added.
Ahead of the announcement, the joint presidential team at local authority body Cosla said: “The timing and approach of the Scottish Government’s latest move undermines the democratic mandate of local government and is a U-turn on previously agreed flexibilities for councils over their budgets.
“It is not the case that local government wants to cut any of our services; we have to work with the budgets we have and unless there is more funding, we are forced to make democratic decisions on priorities for the communities we serve.”
The statement added: “These latest asks and the government’s narrative demonstrates a government who does not fully value and respect local government’s role. Asks of this nature are addressing a symptom, not the cause.”
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