Secondary teachers have warned councils that saving money by reducing the number of classroom assistants will damage the quality of education for all pupils.

The Scottish Secondary Teachers Association (SSTA) blamed a concordat between the Scottish Government and local authorities for the lack of protection afforded to support staff.

“It is time for the Government to act and insist that previous support standards, which are already very minimal in some schools, are retained,” said Ann Ballinger, general secretary of the SSTA.

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However, Cosla, which represents local authorities, refuted the suggestions, saying the concordat made it more likely that children with special needs would get the support they needed.

The Classroom Assistant Initiative was launched by the former Scottish Executive as a pilot programme in 1998 and rolled out across the country over the following three years.

Classroom assistants were tasked with undertaking a range of administrative and support tasks such as photocopying, collecting dinner money or helping with arts and crafts preparation. Crucially, they also work one-to-one with pupils who may have learning difficulties or need support in literacy or numeracy.

This role became increasingly important with the introduction of so-called mainstreaming -- where children with additional support needs or behavioural difficulties are taught in mainstream classrooms rather than special schools.

But official figures published in November show the number of classroom assistants and behaviour support staff across Scotland has fallen from 5443 in 2008 to 5296 in 2009.

“It is only relatively recently that many of the young people involved lost their principal educational resource when their special school was closed under the guise of inclusion, which was no more than a cost saving exercise,” said Mrs Ballinger.

“Only a few years later, the same pupils face a further reduction as many local authorities, again for financial reasons, reduce or withdraw the level of their teaching auxiliary support.

“Not only do the pupils suffer the obvious deterioration in their education, but class teachers now inevitably spend more time with them. The consequence is, of course, a reduction in the amount of time spent with mainstream pupils.”

Mrs Ballinger added “Much of the cause is the so-called concordat between Government and local authorities which has already, in other areas, beenrecognised as a barrier to progress.”

However, Isabel Hutton, education spokeswoman for Cosla, backed the concordat.

“The irony of this accusation is that the local flexibility enabled by the concordat makes it more likely that individual children with special needs will receive support appropriate to their needs,” she said.

“The concordat doesn’t create barriers to progress -- it provides flexibility so that, when barriers do occur, councils and their community planning partners can identify the most appropriate ways to overcome them.

“While councils can’t afford to do everything they would like to, there won’t be a council in the land that doesn’t place upmost priority on improving the lives of children, particularly those with the greatest needs. To suggest otherwise is frankly nonsense.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said the 2004 Additional Support for Learning Act placed a duty on local authorities to meet the needs of all young people with additional support needs.

“It is a matter for each authority to determine how this provision is met across their school estate,” he said.