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Excellence from within

We should be grateful for the opportunities the Scottish Parliament gives us to debate educational issues. The refrain from MSPs on these occasions is usually that schools need to "raise their game". A start could be made by parliamentarians: last week's debate initiated by the Tories failed to set pulses racing, at least in the right direction.

Brian Monteith, the Tories' education spokesman, argued for more specialist schools. This is a serious issue and deserves to be taken seriously, not dismissed simply because it is being espoused in England. There was little evidence of that serious response last week amid accusation and counter-accusation of who best embodied "privilege" or "excellence" or "opportunity".

The issue of specialist schools is complex. They do produce better raw exam scores. But has this to do with their specialisation? A report from the National Foundation for Educational Research lists nine characteristics which make these schools successful, including outstanding leadership, high expectations, effective use of ICT and support staff and extensive monitoring of pupils' progress. They also have an enhanced ability to attract and keep scarce staff.

In other words, they are good, well-managed and successful schools, which is hardly surprising. Any English school that is not finds it impossible to jump the necessary hoops to qualify. Specialist schools may not be selective. But they are selected.

Specialisation is not one of the success factors identified in the NFER report. It seems largely irrelevant to this convivial club - although, with 1,007 full members and a further 800 affiliated schools in England, it is no longer even a particularly select club. Much more important than their specialist status is that they are prepared to be accountable for the success of their pupils.

These schools have one important achievement to their credit: they appear to have convinced Tony Blair that real improvement cannot be imposed from the centre. He has to unleash the creative and innovative professionalism of schools if he is to succeed in his aim of allowing all pupils to taste success. There is a message here for the Scottish Executive if it is to move from rhetoric to reality in its high ambition of turning every school into a "centre of excellence".

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