SCOTLAND's new Education Secretary has challenged teachers to do more to improve the performance of pupils in basic skills such as literacy and numeracy.

Angela Constance said she was "astonished" that some subject teachers in secondary did not think reading and writing was "vital".

However, her comments provoked a backlash from teaching unions who suggested the Government should provide more resources to schools rather than "blaming teachers".

Ms Constance spoke out after recent official figures showed standards of literacy in Scottish primary and secondary schools are falling.

The Scottish Survey of Literacy found performance in reading dropped in primary schools between 2012 and 2014, as well as in the second year of secondary school. Last year, the same survey found Scottish primary schools had experienced a dramatic decline in standards of numeracy.

In a keynote speech to an audience of education specialists at Glasgow University, Ms Constance said: "The results on numeracy and.... literacy show that we need to step up the pace of change. Frankly, it's not good enough that some children appear to be doing less well in basic skills the older they get.

"The survey also found that, if we take away English teachers, fewer than 20 per cent of secondary teachers think that reading and writing is vital to their curriculum area.

"I'm astonished at this, frankly. And if it is the case, then we must change those attitudes and do more to support our schools and teachers, to raise the quality of teaching in literacy across other curriculum areas."

Ms Constance called on all teachers to "step up to their professional challenges" and realise the opportunities that the education system holds for them as professionals as well as Scotland's children.

She added: "The quality of our teaching workforce and the excellence of our educational leadership provide the bedrock of our education system and all, not some, teachers must play their part. They need to understand poverty and children's lives better.

"Seeing the children they teach not just as pupils or learners, but as individuals with foibles, weaknesses and challenges, but importantly too, strengths, opportunities and enthusiasm."

However, Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, said the suggestion some teachers were unaware of the importance of basic skills was "unfair".

He said: "All secondary teachers understand the importance of literacy and numeracy across all subjects. These are the necessary tools all students need to reach the highest levels in their subject studies and I would dispute any figures that give the impression that literacy is not important.

"Teachers have always wanted to do their best for their students and trying to apportion blame to teachers who are doing their best in a climate of financial cutbacks is unfair.

"If government is prepared to support and provide the resources teachers will deliver. Identifying and meeting the needs of all youngsters is a priority and SSTA has campaigned for additional resources and teacher time for a long period."

A spokesman for council umbrella organisation Cosla said the speech "vindicated" local government's position in opposing a strict adherence to teacher numbers.

He said: "It is clear from the tone and criticism in what she says that we need to get on and address some of the issues raised in relation to teachers rather than obsess about the amount of them we have across Scotland at any particular moment in time.

"This vindicates local government's position on teacher numbers. We were clear at the time that it is the quality of teaching and the outcome that is important, not the number of teachers which is nothing more than a crude input measure."

Ms Constance went on to say said she was particularly concerned about the underachievement of boys in basic skills.

"The evidence suggests current approaches to teaching children to read, write, listen and talk are less suited to boys than girls. So we must find and embed new ones," she said.

"Likewise, there is much still to do in encouraging girls and young women into careers in science, technology, engineering and maths ensuring that no young person's aspirations are limited by gender stereotyping."

Professor Christopher Chapman, director of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change at Glasgow University, which hosted the speech, said: "I very much welcome the Cabinet Secretary's focus on raising the attainment of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, which is a priority for this centre.

"We shall endeavour to use our expertise..... to support reform efforts and promote a rethinking of roles and responsibilities that generates improvement in classrooms, schools and across the wider system."