SCOTLAND’S local government organisation has challenged John Swinney on proposals to reform the country’s education system ahead of a ministerial summit this week on improving access to university for pupils from poorer backgrounds.

The intervention comes amid growing tension over the future role of councils in education and plans to hand more funding directly to school headteachers.

Councillor Stephanie Primrose, education spokeswoman for umbrella group the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), urged the Education Secretary and Deputy First Minister to “proceed with caution”.

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Primrose, a SNP councillor on East Ayrshire Council, said: “Ahead of Wednesday’s summit I would appeal to Mr Swinney to proceed with caution. The aim of central government, local government and all those with an interest in young people is the same. We all have similar aspirations, we all want them to succeed.

“There is plenty to be celebrated within the Scottish education system and to proceed in a hasty manner could do irreparable damage for future generations.”

She said Scotland’s local authorities were willing to play their part to tackle the “room for improvement in the system” and warned against treating “any aspect of a child’s development in isolation”.

She added: “Right now, if a child needs extra support, the council is there for them with all the services and expertise that is required to make a real difference. We will improve attainment of children in poverty only by supporting the whole family.”

Currently, school budgets are controlled by councils with a staffing formula set at local authority level and passed on to headteachers with limited flexibility.

In its manifesto for the Holyrood election last month, the SNP set out plans to change that arrangement and give more flexibility over resources and staffing to headteachers directly.

Cosla has previously attacked the plans, claiming they could damage the drive to improve attainment by restricting the use of resources.

The summit on Wednesday follows new figures from admissions body Ucas published last week, which showed the number of 18-year-olds from the most deprived areas in Scotland going to university has fallen while the number of those from the country’s richest communities has risen.

At First Minister’s Questions last week Nicola Sturgeon faced criticism from opposition MSPs over the Ucas figures but said it was “simply wrong” to suggest progress was not being made in increasing university applications from poorer areas, as the figures missed out those who entered higher education via college. She has ordered a report into widening access to university, and said a commissioner will shortly be appointed.

A separate, detailed research report published last month showed 18-year-olds from the most well-off areas were four times more likely to go straight to university than those from the most deprived areas.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, which published the report, said it showed a “shocking access gap” and laid bare the extent of the challenge for everyone in Scotland, including the First Minister, universities, schools and communities.

Nicola Sturgeon has made closing Scotland’s attainment gap, which exists right through the education system, the key aim of her premiership. As part of her attempt to do so she introduced a National Improvement Framework which includes plans for standardised, national assessment of pupils in P1, P4, P7 and S3.

The tests, which are to be piloted this year ahead of being brought in across Scotland in 2017, will assess reading, writing and numeracy.

Responding to Cosla, John Swinney, said: “We are committed to working with partners across the board and drawing on their expertise to give Scotland’s children the best possible chance in life. This education summit will bring together a wide range of people, all with an interest in improving Scottish education, to identify how we can make progress.

“We welcome the acknowledgement from Cosla that there is room for improvement in the system, and are drawing from the knowledge of teachers, pupils, local authorities, education experts, political leaders and others.

"The summit will also look at how we can best engage with communities and work with parents, community groups and others towards the common goal of raising attainment and closing the poverty-related attainment gap. We must go further and faster to make substantial progress.”