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Best way to right a wrong

The inspectorate's report on Clackmannanshire should be a salutary warning both to those who feel ministers should take a hands-off approach to authorities and to those who want a gung-ho embrace of hit squads. "Serious weaknesses" in exam performance cannot be ignored. Equally, any attempt to dub Clackmannanshire a "failing authority" would ignore the political instability of the council and its apparent failure to resource headquarters staffing as well as successes of national importance such as marked improvements in reading and maths among younger pupils.

As the Parliament's education committee got down to serious business this week, it will have to consider exactly such a situation when scrutinising the Executive's proposed legislation giving ministers extra powers to intervene where authorities or schools fall below HMI expectations. But, as former minister Wendy Alexander pertinently pointed out at the education committee in June, this is not merely a technical tidying-up of existing powers. It raises fundamental issues about who intervenes, when they intervene and how they intervene.

The Clackmannanshire report underlines the argument from Douglas Osler, the former head of the inspectorate, in his recent TES Scotland article: that the best way of improving the system is through the system, rather than through external forces. Clackmannanshire foresaw the writing on the HMI wall, removed headteachers, beefed up its headquarters staff and brought in an experienced former head to come up with an action plan. That's intervention - and not a ministerial power in sight.

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