School inspectors are to target "failing schools" in a drive to tackle underachievement. But, in its response to the report from a taskforce on improving achievement (pages 4-5), the Scottish Office has veered away from the hit-squad inspections developed south of the border.
The taskforce, set up by the education minister in April under the chairmanship of Hamish Robertson, a former under-secretary at the then Scottish Office Education Department, said that "HM inspectors' present structured sample of schools for inspection provides a balanced view of the system which would be lost if the programme were skewed towards underachieving schools".
Scottish Office officials are anxious to show that they are not in the business of apportioning blame. "This is not about failure but lifting everyone's eyes to what's possible," one said. "There is no desire in here to appoint hit-squads or to take over the management of schools."
The Secretary of State emphasised that many of the report's proposals on quality and performance were in line with the Government's agenda. Michael Forsyth highlighted the Pounds 9 million grant he was prepared to earmark over the next three years for basic literacy and numeracy schemes, initially for the P1 and P2 stages. Authorities will be invited to bid for the money.
Mr Robertson said that his six-person group, which included three state school heads and a former independent school headmistress, had not referred to failing schools.
He added: "You cannot just change the performance of schools at a stroke. It's an organic process. Our proposals also fit with the Scottish tradition that the inspectorate are much more involved in school development than they are south of the border."
The taskforce put a figure on failure for the first time in a definition which the Scottish Office accepts. Its report suggests that at least a quarter of pupils are not gaining five Standard grades 1-6 in 8 per cent of secondaries, slightly more than 30 schools.
In some schools, the figure is 40 per cent or more. "Significant numbers of pupils had gained no qualifications in English or mathematics," the report adds. "For these pupils, the mainstream curriculum is not working."
Mr Robertson said that the report's recommendation of an alternative to Standard grade was not intended to imply it should be replaced for such pupils. The idea was that, instead of being presented for seven or eight Standard grades, some pupils might be more successful if they took five; or more English and maths instead of French.
The 30-plus schools are mostly in deprived areas and inspectors will hold talks with education authorities on tackling the problem.
The report proposes that the authorities should draw up an action plan for each school, in conjunction with the school and school board, and the HMI would report publicly at agreed intervals on the progress made in implementing it. The associated primaries could also be included.
But the taskforce does not assume solutions can be confined to schools, as it says that "many pupils in disadvantaged communities where long-term unemployment is a problem lack role models to motivate them to do well at school or indeed to develop the personal and social skills needed for a self-sustaining lifestyle".