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Shadow boxing

MANY people are quite frankly baffled by the First Minister's forthcoming Bill to send hit squads into "failing" local authorities. Certainly Jack McConnell wants to talk tough and do something apparently radical to appease the populist vote. Certainly he wants to improve standards and attainment, but who doesn't? Certainly it smacks of the Blairite agenda south of the border where local authorities have been taken over by private companies - and with marked failure. Certainly it is about improving public services in his mind.

But let's look at the facts. If the legislation that is expected later this year or early next is merely tidying up the 1980 Education Act and clarifying powers, why the kerfuffle? The nuclear powers ministers currently possess under the 1980 Act to tackle authorities not fulfilling their duties have never been used. The reality is that these days no headteacher or education director ever survives a poor inspection report.

The improvement agenda, backed by toughened quality assurance systems, has seen to that. With more time, local quality checks will improve further.

This week, we prove our point that this piece of legislation is as wasteful of parliamentary time as many of Michael Forsyth's Bills in the late 1980s which eventually bit the dust amid outright opposition. Ministers dispatched HMI to sort out East Dunbartonshire early in the new local authority inspection regime. Two years on, inspectors give the authority a glowing commendation for turning things around quickly. The system works.

Ministers also dispatched inspectors to Scottish Borders more rapidly than anticipated and a similar change of personnel and policy has followed. This week, we report Clackmannanshire is acting on standards in its three secondaries ahead of its inspection. So what more powers do they want? The great danger is to lose the credibility and respect HMI possesses with the profession.

Ultimately, Mr McConnell wants to diminish some local authorities' control of education. That was something Mr Forsyth unsuccessfully pressed for.

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