The SNP government was last night branded “harsh and inflexible” by council leaders after talks aimed at ending a major dispute on teacher numbers ended in stalemate.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney refused to budge in a “robust” meeting with local government body Cosla in Edinburgh yesterday over a threat to cut funding.
In a strongly worded letterwritten afterwards, which has been seen by The Scotsman, Cosla president David O’Neill warns that councils are being forced to act “under duress rather than willingly”.
If councils let pupil-teacher ratios fall below current levels, or let the absolute number of teachers fall, they will face sanction, the letter states.
It adds: “Most surprisingly, the government confirmed that even if a council could demonstrate that it had done everything in its power to meet these two targets but failed because of circumstances outside their immediate control they would still suffer the full sanction.”
Councils have already threatened legal action over a lack of consultation. Mr O’Neill’s letter says: “My concern is that the harshness of this regime undoubtedly means there will be councils who in good faith accept Mr Swinney’s proposals but are sanctioned in December due to circumstances they cannot control.
“It is clear that the government expect all councils to agree to these proposals (from correspondence I know already that this won’t be these case) and they intend to use this information to suggest that local government supports the deal.
“I suspect many councils will be in a position where as a result of financial penalties they feel they have to comply. It is important to our ongoing work on this matter that if councils are in this situation they make it clear in their letters to Mr Swinney that their agreement is given under duress rather than willingly.”
Ministers have offered an extra £51 million for councils to maintain teacher numbers – but they will lose this cash if they can’t meet these conditions.
Councils said that swingeing cuts to their wider budgets mean they will struggle to maintain numbers without a disproportionate effect on other services such as social care. They have until Friday to make up their mind on the issue.
Labour-led councils, such as Glasgow, have already warned there is “not nearly enough” in the budget deal with the government to secure teacher numbers.
A Scottish Government spokesman said it would continue to work closely with councils to help maintain and improve public services but added: “Ministers have made clear that the conditions of the offer will not change.”
He added: “Ministers welcome the number of local authorities who have indicated their interest in the offer.
“We will continue discussions on individual details and look forward to respective councils responding positively.”