CONTROL of Scotland's schools could be wrested from councils after it emerged that teacher numbers are in freefall and class sizes have not come down.
• The Government blames councils after teacher numbers fell by 1,300 in a year
Damning figures yesterday prompted education secretary Fiona Hyslop to adopt a tough new stance towards local authorities.
She indicated ministers could be preparing to rip up the controversial funding deal between the Scottish Government and councils.
And she said crunch talks with council leaders would "examine alternatives to the current system of local government delivery of education policy". A senior government source revealed these alternatives could include bringing education under central government control.
Councils were at loggerheads with the Scottish Government, as each blamed the other for the failure to cut class sizes and maintain teacher numbers, in line with SNP manifesto pledges.
Critics said the move showed the concordat funding deal, which freed local authorities to spend as they wished in return for freezing council tax, had been a "con" and called for Ms Hyslop to quit.
Teachers warned that the new figures showed schools were reaching crisis point, with a potentially catastrophic effect on children's learning.
Last night, council leaders were angry and surprised at the "threatening" language used by Ms Hyslop and warned that moves to strip their powers would be "dangerous".
The statistics, published by the government, show no progress has been made this year on the pledge to keep the maximum class size to 18 in the first three years of primary.
They also reveal the drop in teachers numbers is accelerating. This year, they are down 1,348, compared with a 975 fall last year.
Despite pupil numbers being down 0.7 per cent on last year, the number of pupils per teacher actually increased from 12.9 last year to 13.2 this year.
The average primary class size dropped marginally, from 23.2 to 23.1 pupils, and the number in classes of 18 or fewer in P1-3 remained the same as last year, at 13.2 per cent.
The latest figures come amid growing unemployment among teachers. The number out of work is at a three-year high as councils cut staff, and the General Teaching Council for Scotland says only 770 out of last year's 3,426 new "probationary" teachers have found permanent positions.
Council leaders said it would be "economic suicide" to maintain teacher numbers at a time when pupil numbers were falling. They said they were spending record amounts of cash on education, but the government demanded to know where the 110 million saved by cutting teacher numbers had gone.
Ms Hyslop described the fall in teacher numbers as "unacceptable" and said she would be holding talks with councils. "Everything will be on the table and we will keep an open mind, but parents and pupils have a right to insist on progress," she said.
"That's why we will discuss how best to establish where the estimated 110m that could have been spent on teacher salaries has been spent, what help can be offered to individual councils facing specific difficulties and whether the Scottish Government needs to examine alternatives to the current system of local government delivery of education policy."
She was adamant the concordat deal, under which council tax was frozen in return for the removal of ring-fencing to give local authorities total control over their budgets, had provided sufficient cash to maintain teacher numbers.
Ms Hyslop singled out Glasgow City Council for "deliberately" refusing to meet the class-size target, saying it alone was responsible for more than a quarter of the fall in teacher numbers.
She said: "For one authority among 32 councils to account for such a huge drop is deplorable.
"What is truly shocking is that Glasgow City Council has increased class sizes and cut teacher numbers at exactly the same time as figures for attainment show they are the worst-performing council in Scotland.
"To slash teacher numbers at the same time as attainment is falling is an act of reckless disregard for the interests of children."
Pat Watters, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), denied councils had failed and warned the government that they would fight any threat to their authority.
He said: "This is a very dangerous place for any government to go and quite surprising since the cabinet secretary ruled it out at the SNP conference in the autumn."
He went on: "Forget the posturing and political dogma – education is a very important service well delivered by local government, and it is a service which is improving year on year.
"Local councils and local people treasure education as their own, and Cosla and local government would do everything in their power and take every step to ensure it remained that way."
Teachers said the new statistics made "bleak reading" for everyone in Scottish education.
Ronnie Smith, general secretary of Scotland's biggest teaching union, the EIS, said: "Local authorities and the Scottish Government are failing to meet their obligations to our schools, pupils and teachers.
"These drastic cuts in teacher numbers are leading to larger class sizes, reducing the individual teacher attention for every pupil and damaging opportunities for our young people.
Mr Smith went on: "It is not acceptable for the Scottish Government and local authorities to continue to blame each other and attempt to wash their hands of responsibility.
"We are reaching crisis point, and without urgent and sustained action at both Scottish Government and local authority level, the damage to our education system and to our children's futures could be catastrophic."
He also warned the cuts threatened the new school curriculum due in every classroom next year.
Michael McMahon, Scottish Labour's spokesman for local government said: "The concordat has been exposed for the con that it is, and this looks like the beginning of the end of the concordat as it currently exists."
Labour leader Iain Gray called for Ms Hyslop's resignation. He said: "Her record in office has been one broken promise after another. She has failed on teacher numbers, on school building, on teacher training and the Curriculum for Excellence."
• David Maddox: Education row caps miserable week for beleaguered, friendless SNP
Analysis: Minister's words signal threat of end for the education concordat
THIS could well be a crunch point for the concordat. It won't be torn up but it may well fade away and not be renewed.
Fiona Hyslop's comments signal a threatening determination to do something about local government and any potential reorganisation, in the context of the concordat, must be very worrying for councils.
The strong possibility that reorganisation is back on the agenda will be something all councils will be concerned about.
They will be highly resistant to change because they would take the view, probably rightly, that such a move will be an expensive, distracting exercise.
The suggestion will put the relationship between local and central government on a less warm footing than it has been for the last couple of years, when negotiations have gone reasonably well.
It may, in fact, cause ructions in the relationship because this is more than a storm in the wind, this is a substantial dispute.
In my view, the government has actually played its cards well for a minority government until now, as it has kept councils onside in a way you wouldn't have expected when they came into power.
The concordat provided a real bonus for ministers as it gave them the power to ward off complaints by saying decisions were for a particular council to make.
And the big win was the council tax freeze, which it did, paradoxically, by creating a "ring-fenced" grant.
The concordat has held up reasonably well, to the surprise of many observers including me.
Both sides seemed to be rubbing along, albeit tensions existed with individual councils.
For example, Glasgow have made feelings clear over the Glasgow airport rail link cancellation and Aberdeen continue to assert that the distribution of government grant is "unfair" to the city, a matter the government seems loathe to give ground on, and rightly so.
However, that relatively peaceful partnership is now flaring up.
The recent outbreak of sniping, with exchanges flying both ways, is over the reducing number of teachers in schools, and the progress on achieving the government-stated aim of lower class sizes in primaries one to three.
The appearance of new data on declining teacher numbers and slowing progress on class sizes has certainly provoked a government reaction.
There are, however, other problems, including the need for the government to change the legal basis for class sizes, which currently holds that 30 is acceptable, leaving councils open to legal challenges from parents.
The difficulty is that reducing class sizes means many parents are being frustrated in their attempts to enrol their children into their favoured school.
The reality is that while many schools actually have quite small classes, large classes do exist in the schools many parents really want their children to get into.
Progress on this could mean a St Ninian's style dispute in every town in every council in Scotland, with parents fighting to get their children into the best schools.
Government taking control over schools is a possibility because education is the council service where there is less variation between councils than in any other. Also, it is of a scale that gives the argument for that a lot of momentum.
It may not be very good momentum, or even a particularly compelling argument, but it is still there and it is very powerful.
• Professor Richard Kerley is one of Scotland's foremost experts on public services and is professor of management at Queen Margaret University.