Angela Constance defends council schools funding deal
Education Secretary Angela Constance has defended the Scottish government's council funding deal amid claims budget cuts were affecting schools.
Holyrood's education committee heard from councillors from across Scotland, who said it was "extremely difficult" to maintain schools spending.
Many councils said they only reluctantly accepted this year's funding offer after protracted talks.
Ms Constance said education was "at the heart" of the government's programme.
All of Scotland's 32 councils have now accepted the Scottish government's £10.3bn funding settlement, which sees local authority budgets reduced.
Many voiced reluctance after bodies such as the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) urged them to reject the deal. Finance Secretary John Swinney said he recognised that it was "not easy for councils to accommodate" the budget cut but said it was "a deal worth taking".
At the education committee, a succession of councillors spoke out about the impact the budget cuts could have on education in their areas.
Councillor Malcolm Cunning said his council in Glasgow would have to make savings of £133m over two years, which he said would "clearly" have an impact on education services.
He said teacher-to-pupil ratios would be maintained but said it would be "very, very difficult" and could see fewer support staff in schools.
Gary Robertson from independent-controlled Shetland Islands Council agreed, adding: "It is becoming extremely difficult to maintain education expenditure."
He said "constant cuts" to funding were making it difficult to close the attainment gap in schools, saying if this continues it could bring overall attainment levels down.
Robert Nicol, from Cosla, said budget cutbacks "will not make closing the attainment gap any easier", while Paul Godzik from City of Edinburgh Council said services such as music tuition may be affected by savings.
Ms Constance told MSPs that there was "a real willingness" from the Scottish government to work together with councils.
She said the funding deal was a "fair settlement", admitting it was "not without its challenges" but claiming the reduction in budgets was "less than 1%" once investment was included.
She said: "Within the local government settlement, education is a priority.
"We remain committed to teacher numbers and the settlement includes provision of £88m specifically to support delivery of the commitment to maintain the pupil-teacher ratio.
"We are investing in our schools - we have rebuilt or refurbished 607 schools - as a result of that the number of pupils in poorer or bad condition schools has more than halved since 2007.
"While we all recognise the financial constraints, we need to focus on what we can do with the resources we have. Attainment is increasing and the gap is closing, and we need to continue in that vein."
Council representatives voiced a concern about a lack of flexibility in school staffing due to the enforcement of the teacher-to-pupil ratio.
Ms Constance said the quality of teaching was one of the most important factors in raising attainment, saying she failed to see how reducing the number of high quality teachers in schools could help tackle the attainment gap.
Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur said the ratio chosen was "arbitrary", accusing Ms Constance of being "rather disingenuous" by conflating quantity and quality of teachers.
He also said the government should accept the existence of multiple attainment gaps.
The cabinet secretary said the government did accept this, and said it was "setting a high bar" to close the gap between those least and most disadvantaged.
She said a "strong offer" had been made for all schools to invest in the workforce and insisted schools were "on the right road".