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Right note from McConnell

Bog-standard comprehensives are fighting back. David Henderson reports from a landmark conference hosted by North Lanarkshire

Secondary schools have been given the bluntest message yet to drive ahead plans to lift achievement among the 50 per cent of pupils who do not go on to higher education.

Jack McConnell, the First Minister used a state of the education nation address in Bellshill on Monday to hammer home the Scottish Executive's commitment to restructure the character of the country's comprehensive schools without resorting to the more radical initiatives south of the border.

Mr McConnell is specifically backing more pre-vocational education for pupils beyond S2, and boys in particular.

Mr McConnell told the "Diversity makes a Difference" conference: "I want there to be no doubt. There is no room in Scotland for failing schools and there is no room for a comprehensive system that clings on to the past and refuses to embrace the future.

"Modern comprehensive schools need variety, ambition, leadership, flexibility and pupil choice. In other words, they must be diverse."

Mr McConnell praised North Lanarkshire for pushing ahead with sports and music comprehensives and introducing a flexible curriculum that offered far more to pupils turned off by academic subjects. "In North Lanarkshire, schools are no longer described as run of the mill or mundane," he said.

He continued: "Scotland needs a decisive shift away from a strait-jacket of limited choice for young teenagers. We must not force another generation of young people into a uniformity of academic choices, where those with a certain type of academic ability made it and those who didn't saw their options fall away."

Scotland was commended for its higher education record with one in two under-21s now taking diplomas or degrees at college or university. "But what of the other 50 per cent, who neither want nor aspire to that route.

Their education, their knowledge, their ambitions matter if our economy is to flourish and Scotland to succeed," Mr McConnell said.

He promised to "free up" schools to offer pupils routes that were more attractive to them. "I am giving headteachers much more control in the way courses are delivered. The curriculum can be flexible around the choices of pupils. No child should see options falling away from them if they are not in the top academic streams in the schools."

The First Minister said the country was short of trades and technical skills and had a cohort of teenagers who did not want to take the academic route. "The comprehensive ideal for the 21st century is one that strives for excellence for every child, no matter where they live or where they come from," he said.

Mr McConnell said the first four years of the Executive had been spent on getting the basics right, a move first begun when Labour took over from the Conservatives. "We inherited in 1997 a history of under-investment in our schools, in the buildings and - critically - in our teachers. We inherited a top-heavy, top-down and prescriptive education policy and schools could not thrive in these conditions."

He described the Executive's record in education as "an impressive programme of achievement", listing the post-McCrone reforms on teachers'

pay and conditions, its investment in pre-school and the early years of primary, its pledge for 300 new school buildings by 2009 and its green light for curriculum flexibility.

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