THE Scottish Executive has put education authorities in the driving seat to push up standards. In return, councils will have to meet tough performance criteria and comply with new statutory powers of inspection by HMI.
Ministers are confident this will be a sufficiently robust framework to deliver their new plans set out in a draft Improvement in Scottish Education Bill, published on Wednesday (pages 4-5).
The weapon of last resort will be ministerial intervention against authorities that fail to take action where there is evidence of underperformance in any of their schools. The power to do so already resides in section 70 of the 1980 Education (Scotland) Act and will not flow from the new legislation.
Although much has been made of the absence of "hit squads" for failing schools outlined in January's Targeting Excellence White Paper, ministerial intervention could still take the form of enlisting the help of outside experts to ride to the rescue of such schools. Authorities already second top-flight heads to revive declining schools.
Peter Peacock, Deputy Minister for Children and Education, told The TES Scotland: "The requirement to make the raising of standards a statutory purpose is quite a change from the present vague obligation to ensure 'adequate and efficient' education."
Mr Peacock, who accompanied Sam Galbraith, the Minister, at the launch of the Bill in Coatbridge, said: "We are trying very hard to cast things in a positive light, hence the emphasis on continuous improvement. The framework in the bill is intended to address all schools not just the so-called failures. The whole purpose is to ensure that we don't get to the stage of catastrophic breakdown in the performance of a school.
Mr Galbraith said: "The framework will be rigorous but designed in a way which develops the good practice that does exist, recognising that this can only be done in a positive, constructive atmosphere."
John Patton, president of the Educational Institute of Scotland, welcomed the recognition that educational improvement "cannot be achieved through diktat and imposed changes in the law".
Keir Bloomer, vice-president of the Association of Directors of Education, commended "the attempt for the first time to set out what the education service is actually supposed to be for - the raising of standards and so on - in contrast to the 1980 Act which is a ragbag of the trivial and the irrelevant".
Danny McCafferty, education convener of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, welcomed the move to consult on national priorities and the emphasis on the need for stability.
But Barbara Clark, assistant general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, said: "Our experience of consultation has been that, while the end result may be a bit of tweaking and trimming, the substance remains. As for the rhetoric about stability, there seems to be a very long tunnel into this period of stability."