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Scottish councils threaten government with legal action over education funding

Council leaders in Scotland have threatened legal action against the government over the “imposition” of a budget deal by Holyrood forcing them to maintain current teacher staffing levels.

The Scottish finance secretary, John Swinney, has warned he will withhold up to £51m in education funding unless all 32 Scottish councils give a “clear commitment to protect teacher numbers”.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) said it now has legal advice suggesting it could take the Scottish Government to court on the grounds Swinney’s actions are “coercing” councils to pursue central government policy.

Rory Mair, Cosla chief executive, said that Cosla’s lawyers believed the government’s ultimatum was illegal on four separate grounds. He demanded ministers agree to negotiate when they meet Cosla for talks this Wednesday, however this was rejected last night by the Scottish government.

Mair said: “We’ve now taken legal advice which suggests the government have a case to answer about the legality of their behaviour over the teacher number issue and the imposition of this deal.

“I don’t think our first port of call would be to go to legal action, our first port of call is to go to government and say these are the questions you’ve got to answer, we expect you to come back round the table and answer them.”

A government spokesman said it was committed to keeping teacher numbers.

“Having not only the highest quality but also the right number of teachers in our schools to support our pupils is a policy we would hope local authorities would support,” he said. “Ministers have made clear that the conditions of the offer will not change.”

Scotland’s councils have already been forced to sign up to the government’s flagship policy of a council tax freeze during the SNP’s time in power – a measure critics say has starved authorities of cash to fund frontline services such as school staff.

Local government in Scotland is to receive £10.85bn next year, with about £5bn going on education, as part of Swinney’s budget for 2015-16.

There are about 51,000 teachers in Scotland’s public sector, costing about £3bn a year. Councils had identified up to 150 posts they wanted to cut, Mair said.

“The idea teacher numbers are dwindling in Scotland is just nonsense,” he added.

A Scottish government spokesman said: “A further meeting between the Scottish government and Cosla is planned for next week, but ministers have made clear that the conditions of the offer will not change.

“Ministers have acted legally at every stage, and it is unclear which regulations Cosla believe sets out that Scottish ministers can or cannot act in this way.

“Ministers are obliged to consult before the annual Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order is laid before parliament, which they did in the local government finance circular last ­December.”

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