Matt Smith, Unison’s Scottish secretary, spoke at a conference in Edinburgh on the role played by education support staff, such as classroom assistants, catering staff and librarians.

The trade union chief used his speech to stress the importance of education, telling the audience this was “one of the key supports for economic infrastructure”.

Mr Smith said: “When big business accuses public service of being a drain on the economy, they conveniently forget the role of public education in providing them with an educated workforce.

“This is just one of the reasons why public service investment must be kept high. To cut spending on education and other public services at this crucial time could condemn the Scottish economy to further recession.”

And he stressed the role other staff play, arguing they should be “valued and consulted in the development of Scotland’s education”.

Mr Smith said: “Too often, politicians and the media focus on teachers and lecturers, and ignore the rest of the education team. From classroom assistants to school meals staff, and from early years workers to librarians, they ensure our kids get a high standard of education.

“However, as in other parts of the public sector, support staff in education tend to be the lowest paid and least valued, and it is no coincidence that many of them are women.

“Politicians must become aware that support staff are no longer prepared to play a secondary role. They need to be valued and consulted in the development of Scotland’s education.”