In manifesto plans for next May's elections, Jack McConnell has sparked controversy by announcing plans for 100 skills academies to ensure "no child is left behind" and half a dozen science academies to ensure "no child is held back". This could recreate junior and senior secondary schools, critics fear. But, in an interview with The TESS, Mr McConnell described such assertions as "rubbish". "We should be able to have a more mature debate that doesn't place the comprehensive school up against competition and choice.
"I am angry that there are young people in Scotland for whom the system is not working, is not motivating them or giving them the skills that are useful."
The First Minister pointed out that selection already exists in S5S6, as pupils narrow their subject choices. "For anyone to say that, by creating an environment in which high-achieving youngsters can come together and feed off each other, stretching them to the full and realising their potential, is anti-comprehensive, is just rubbish. Every youngster in Scotland is not the same - every parent knows that, every pupil knows that."
Mr McConnell said pupils were already selected in the early secondary stages for the seven centres of excellence in music, dance and sport; he did not see why the same could not be done for the sciences in upper secondary. Neither did he rule out extending the scheme to other subjects, such as modern languages "if the evidence was there".
He said additional efforts would be put into improving science teaching in primary schools, a theme flagged up in different ways last week by the Prime Minister and Nicol Stephen, the Deputy First Minister in Scotland.
Mr McConnell also stoutly defended his plans for skills academies in schools, saying there was a clear demand for them and there was no reason why vocational courses had to be of lower quality than academic programmes.
The new academies will have strong links with universities and business, and Mr McConnell strongly endorsed the role of the private sector in schools - "not running schools but involved with schools. In Scotland, we want successful people to be role models for young people, widening their aspirations and raising their sights".
Perhaps surprisingly, he singled out the executive's Determined to Succeed strategy as having made more difference than any other educational initiative in the first two terms of the Scottish Parliament. "It has helped create a culture of ambition. We did that by changing from enterprise education to the broader concept of determined to succeed," he said.
"If it had just been about running a business or chairing board meetings, that might have been interesting, but this has done more than that and it's been a vehicle for getting the culture right."