Neil Munro dissects the Improvement in Scottish Education Bill, launched for consultation on Wednesday in the symbolic setting of Rosehall High in Coatbridge, right, where a summer literacy school is under way
THE DRAFT Improvement in Scottish Education Bill is intended to enhance "education for the nation", Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, states in his foreword.
The rhetoric confirms the twin objectives of raising attainment and promoting social inclusion, which were the cornerstones of the Targeting Excellence White Paper published in January.
It also draws teachers into the inclusion agenda, after groundwork carefully laid in comments and speeches by Mr Galbraith and Peter Peacock, his deputy.
"Teachers throughout Scotland are working with dedication and commitment to make a difference," the consultative document states. "They are appreciated and valued by this administration."
But the plans published this week do not spell out any details on teachers. This is because negotiations with the unions do not resume until August 20, and the proposal for a "twin-track" promotion structure designed to pay able teachers more for remaining in the classroom depends on the outcome.
New arrangements for monitoring teacher performance, including appraisal and continuous professional development, will also have to await the outcome of a separate consultation on the future powers of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, which will be unveiled next week.
These powers may include the controversial suggestion in the White Paper that teachers can be struck from the register if they are dismissed by an education authority for incompetence.
The consultative document says the Bill will acknowledge concerns raised in the responses to the White Paper that local flexibility could get lost in a drive to give schools more central direction.
"The Scottish Executive does not intend to create centralised structures to direct school education," the document states. "It firmly believes excellence already exists within Scottish education. The challenge is to help those not yet achieving the best practice to do so."
It adds, however: "The Scottish Executive will exercise firm leadership to ensure that expectations are high and that those yet to achieve the performance of the best are supported and challenged to do so."
Ministers promise to allocate resources in accordance with need to achieve these objectives.
But key to the new legislation will be powers given to ministers to set performance indicators with which schools and education authorities would be expected to comply. There is a promise to consult on national priorities, however, and to act with "minimum central direction or intervention".
The draft "improvement framework" has six pillars - raising standards, local improvement objectives, school planning, supporting best performance in schools, devolved school management and inspecting the education functions of local authorities.
A new duty is to be imposed on Scottish ministers and local authorities to improve the quality of education and raise standards.
The role of ministers is "poorly defined" at present, the proposals state, and they should be under the same obligations that are to be placed on local authorities. Ministers will be expected to account to the Scottish Parliament and the public for their actions.
The local authorities' duty to secure "adequate and efficient" school education will be supplemented by new requirements including levels of attainment, the standards and quality of their provision and the development of the teaching force.
LOCAL IMPROVEMENT OBJECTIVES
This gives ministers power to identify national priorities, after consultation, and requires local authorities to prepare a "statement of improvement objectives" in line with the priorities.
The plans are essentially built on the current target-setting initiative, which set out attainment and attendance targets, and the annual indicators required by the Accounts Commission on school occupancy level and pupil:teacher ratios.
Local improvement objectives will be expected to "represent improvements on present or recent best levels of performance". These would succeed the existing targets on attainment and attendance, beginning in August 2001 preceded by piloting.
Ministerial approval will not be required for these objectives, but local authorities will have to produce annual performance reports. The first of these is proposed by December 2002 when final exam results for the year are available.
Schools' annual development plans will be placed on a statutory footing. This requirement is based on HMI findings that there is not enough "consistency and rigour" in setting objectives within current plans.
In future they will have to set out detailed targets for improvement and link expenditure plans to these. Effectively, they are intended to mirror the local improvement objectives and would also have to include annual reports to parents.
SUPPORTING BEST PERFORMANCE IN SCHOOLS
Local authorities will be under a duty to ensure they have arrangements to identify schools falling short of the standards of the best, and to take action.
This is intended to apply to advantaged schools which may be faltering, not just to 'failing' schools in deprived areas.
Ministers will issue guidance to authorities, but they expect action to be taken if a series of warning lights start to flash. Alarm signals include flat or downwards exam results, underperformance in relation to similar schools, high levels of absence and parents voting with their feet.
If an authority fails to support schools in such circumstances, ministers warn they will use existing powers to intervene under the 1980 Education Act.
DEVOLVED SCHOOL MANAGEMENT
The existing arrangements are to be made compulsory. They may also be extended beyond the 80 per cent of school-level expenditure recommended in national guidelines, and include items not currently devolved.
Ministers are also keen to see fewer restrictions on schools' ability to switch spending and carry forward deficits and surpluses.
INSPECTION OF EDUCATION AUTHORITIES
There will be a new power for ministers to ensure "regular, independent, external evaluation" of authorities. This is said to be essential because they are being entrusted with a central role in the continuous improvement of schools.
A draft code of practice, which authorities will be asked to help finalise, suggests HMI should inspect all authorities at least once within the next five years; two months' notice of inspections will be given. As with schools, there will be a follow-up inspection to check on progress in tackling any weaknesses.
HMI will be expected to link with the work of the Accounts Commission, the public sector's value-for-money watchdog, as well as the social work and police inspectorates. At least one senior education figure from another authority should be involved in each inspection.
A special panel, including local authority and Scottish Executive representatives, will review progress each year.
* Corporal punishment will be outlawed in all independent schools and publicly funded pre-school centres, in line with England and Wales.
* The opt-out legislation will be repealed, allowing Highland and Stirling councils to reclaim Dornoch Academy and St Mary's Episcopal primary.
* Independent schools will have to satisfy ministers on the care and welfare of children, and there will be wider powers to refuse provisional registration of an independent school.
* The school board election process is to be simplified in a bid to attract more parent members. By-elections will be scrapped in favour of co-option.
* The provision of pre-school education is to become statutory to protect the service after the present system of direct grants for nursery expansion ends in 2002.
* Parental placing requests will face a new restriction. Local authorities, in complying with the 30-pupil limit in the first three years of primary, will be allowed to refuse a placing request in the early stages where this would create an extra class or require an additional teacher to be employed further up the school.