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The only if needed Bill

Ministers continued to assert the "prudence" of their extra powers to intervene in failing schools, when the legislation's general principles were passed at its first stage in the Scottish Parliament last week by 60 votes to 48.

The main opposition parties suggested there should be a delay to give the new inspection regime a chance to bed in properly, a position suggested during the education committee's scrutiny by the Headteachers' Association of Scotland.

But Peter Peacock, Education Minister, told MSPs that the School Education (Ministerial Powers and Independent Schools) (Scotland) Bill represented "last-resort powers to bring about change in a school or an education authority when inspectors believe that that is essential and would not happen through normal means".

Mr Peacock contrasted the new measure with section 70 of the 1980 Education Act, which had only been used once in recent times but which is related to clear breaches of statutory duties. Since failure to follow HMI advice is not a breach of duty, a gap exists which had to be filled.

The Bill gives HMI the responsibility of referring an authority or a school to ministers for action. But four serious steps would have to be taken before that happened - the authority or school would already have undergone an inspection, steps would be identified to improve matters, inspectors would have to conclude that improvements had not turned out to be satisfactory and HMI would have to judge the issue so seriously that it had to recommend intervention to ministers.

Mr Peacock said he was prepared to consider an amendment to make it clearer that intervention could only take place where "serious matters" are at stake This was urged by Robert Brown, Liberal Democrat convener of the education committee which has been scrutinising the Bill, but Mr Peacock also made clear he did not want to limit the scope for HMI to act. "I hope that the need to use the proposed powers will be very rare indeed," he said. "However, if something were to go wrong, it would be no excuse for ministers to say that, although they had realised in 2003 that they did not have the necessary powers, they had taken no action to seek them."

But Brian Adam, for the SNP, said he suspected that the powers would never be used since "there is no evidence that recommendations from HMI are not taken seriously or not acted on by local authorities". It was taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, Mr Adam commented.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the Tories' education spokesman, said that few Bills from the Executive "can have been received by local authorities with such a total lack of enthusiasm - not to mention implacable opposition". It was a strange lack of meeting of minds between the Labour-led governing coalition and Labour-led local authorities.

Brian Monteith, the Tories' former education spokesman and now convener of the Parliament's audit committee, highlighted figures which showed that only five follow-up inspections were unsatisfactory in 1999-2000, a figure which rose to 11 in 2002 but at a time when the number of inspections was up from 150 several years before to 299. "That clearly shows local authorities and schools are taking into consideration what HMI says," Mr Monteith said.

Euan Robson, Deputy Education Minister, offered an analogy: "Although my house has not yet burnt down, I retain insurance. That is how we regard the power - as an end game that, importantly, is proportionate with existing legislation."

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