EDUCATION IS almost certain to dominate the first phase of legislation in the Scottish parliament after Labour this week promised to place school standards at the top of its agenda.
With Labour well ahead in the polls and the other three main parties equally committed to education, the way is clear for an administration to introduce yet more school reform and tidy up such unfinished business as the removal of opting-out legislation.
Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary, launching the party's manifesto in Glasgow on Monday, said his first legislation as First Minister, if the electorate gave Labour a mandate, would be an Education for a Nation Act.
"We must face some uncomfortable facts," Mr Dewar stated. "Too many of our children fall behind even before they reach school. They do not reach required standards of literacy, numeracy and skills at school and then leave school without proper qualifications. I am not prepared to let so many of our children fail at school and then find they fail in the employment market."
He spelt out five key education commitments, most of which were trailed in Targeting Excellence, the Scottish Office White Paper that effectively was the party's education manifesto, Labour intends to stiffen the legislative base to make ministers and councils more accountable, particularly in relation to school standards. "It came as a surprise to me that we have very, very little in the way of duty on local authorities and none at all on the Government," Mr Dewar said. There would be a statutory duty on both to meet targets, despite criticism on target-setting from councils, teachers and parents.
"Let me make it absolutely clear. If the Education Minister doesn't make the grade, he or she won't be the Education Minister," Mr Dewar said.
"Tough and achievable" targets had been set for schools, while local authorities would be responsible for publishing targets and telling parents about steps to improve them.
A senior Labour figure, however, warned privately that any new duty on ministers to raise standards would "put HMI right to the top of the pecking order". Directors of education would be uneasy about extra powers the Inspectorate would be given.
Mr Dewar also gave the clearest indication yet that Labour has no intention of ducking radical reform of the teaching profession by promising to introduce a "twin-track promotion structure", a key element of the employers' strategy in the current talks in the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee. It now seems ministers are determined to press ahead with an "appropriate modern pay and conditions package" if the SJNC fails to produce a solution from the current stalled talks.
Labour's manifesto states: "We will consult on the best machinery to ensure that Scotland recruits, retains and motivates the highest quality teachers."
Mr Dewar repeated previous commitments announced by Helen Liddell, the current Education Minister. New community schools would be at the heart of Labour's development of comprehensive education, providing a range of services under one roof. "We can only tackle the educational difficulties of Scotland's children if we meet their other needs," he declared.
Sixty schools will be involved in the first phase but Mr Dewar said a further 60 would be created by the end of the first term of the Scottish parliament.
The Secretary of State reiterated Labour's pledge on having at least four modern computers per classroom and on linking schools to the World Wide Web.
"The reality for our children is that inequality in computer learning will lead to inequality in life," Mr Dewar warned.
There was a further commitment to part-time nursery places for three and four-year-olds and an after-school place for every child.
Personal learning plans for pupils at the end of secondary 2, another brainchild of Mrs Liddell, receive al shove up the agenda.
In further and higher education, the party wants 750,000 places in colleges and universities within four years. It also wants to reduce by half the number of 16 and 17-year-olds who do not enter FE, HE, training or employment Parties compared, page 12