LEGISLATION to remove incompetent teachers is virtually certain to be the centrepiece of Labour's forthcoming White Paper on schools after this week's HMI report on standards identified significant concerns.
Labour will want the Scottish parliament to bring in tough laws to sack teachers and headteachers who chronically underperform. The party believes the policy will play well with parents and tackle the serious problems highlighted by the Inspectorate.
Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, refused to spell out her intentions at the launch of the report on Standards and Quality in Scottish Schools 1995 to 1998, but added cryptically: "We need new Scottish education legislation and we need it quickly," Mrs Liddell said.
The party's manifesto prior to the last election said those "ill-suited" to teaching should be removed. A Scottish Office consultation recently underlined the Government's insistence on rooting out poor staff. How to do it has been more contentious.
Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector, supporting the minister in Glasgow on Tuesday, made it clear that headteachers needed more muscle.
"The challenge to schools is to eradicate the major weaknesses identified by their own self-evaluation. Schools know about them. Good headteachers may need more radical assistance from education authorities where there are problems," Mr Osler said.
He emphasised that there was "no crisis" in schools and that the many strengths outweighed weaknesses, but stressed: "In education, anything less than 100 per cent being good means some children are disadvantaged."
Repeated surveys had shown that 20 per cent of provision in schools was very good and 55 per cent generally good, meaning that 75 per cent was acceptable and of good quality. But the remaining 20-25 per cent had important weaknesses and up to 5 per cent was unsatisfactory. "It is difficult to crack this," Mr Osler admitted.
Ministers have yet to detail how to sack teachers. Local authorities insist it is their duty, but the General Teaching Council continues to demand an increased role as an independent arbiter. The recent consultation tested the waters and found opinions divided.
Ivor Sutherland, the council's registrar, said there was general agreement among unions and authorities about the need to remove a small number of teachers. Authorities might identify underperforming teachers and the GTC might be asked to investigate and possibly remove them from the teaching register.
Mr Sutherland said: "A small number of incompetent teachers are causing a problem and it has got to be addressed. Everyone agrees. It is not fair on the children they teach, it is a waste of resources and it has got to be tackled. It is the mechanism, who is going to do it and how it is going to be done."
Authorities say their hands are currently tied by teachers' unique conditions of service and want to place them on the same employment terms as other staff.
A recent industrial tribunal verdict won by the Educational Institute of Scotland strengthened the union case.
New laws to undermine the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee and its binding national agreements may therefore accompany any drive to remove incompetent staff.
HMI's verdict, page 3
Leader, page 18