MINISTERS moved quickly this week to close a potential loophole in the education Bill which was identified in evidence given to the Parliament's education committee.
During the first stage parliamentary debate on the Bill on Wednesday, both the SNP and Tories raised the prospect that one of its key features, placing ministers under a duty to "endeavour" to improve the quality of schooling, may be unenforceable because it is discretionary. They cited the legal opinion obtained by the Parliament's education committee from Tom Mullen, a leading public law expert from Glasgow University (TESS, last week).
Mr Mullen's view was "quite a devastating critique" of a key plank in the legislation, Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's education spokesperson, said. It merely existed "just to give the impression that ministers are taking action to raise standards". Brian Monteith, the Tory spokesman, agreed it was "superficial".
But replying to the debate, Peter Peacock, Deputy Children and Education Minister, said the Executive would put forward an amendment during the committee stage to give ministers powers "to direct local authorities to comply with the duties in the Bill and, should an authority fail to do so, the power to take appropriate action will be there".
The SNP, which supports the principles behind the Bill, did not take issue with the reliance the legislation places on education authorities to draw up "local improvement objectives" based on new national priorities, which will shortly be issued for consultation. But Mr Monteith, continuing his lonely fight to save the opted-out St Mary's Episcopal primary in Dunblane from Stirling Council's control, called in aid Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, to strengthen his arguments.
Mr Monteith said Mr Brown had shown he did not trust local authorities by directing this week's extra expenditure for education straight to schools. Yet his Scottish ministerial colleagues predicated the Bill on the effectiveness of local authorities. "This Bill is not about standards, it's about standardisation through the bureaucratic grip of the local authorties who run our schools."
The General Teaching Council for Scotland could become one of the early battlegrounds of the Bill as both Tories and Nationalists this week united around stronger powers for the council. Ministers, backed by the education authorities, prefer an extended but more limited role for the GTC.
Ms Sturgeon said the SNP wanted to make continuous professional development compulsory for teachers and a condition of their ongoing registration. She also pressed for complaints about incompetent teachers to be referred directly to the GTC - by parents if necessary.
Mr Monteith, a former media consultant to the GTC, pointed out that lawyers and consultants are subject to similar powers by their professional bodies so "why can't teachers?" He rebutted the argument that this would interfere with the management role of local authorities, arguing: "Councils already employ lawyers and accountants and find no difficulty with these professions controlling their own standards."
The Government wants any decision to extend the GTC's powers to include career development to be put on hold for five years, and for the council to take action in incompetence cases only after a teacher has been sacked by a local authority.
Opening the debate Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, did acknowledge that, while the Bill provides an essential framework, "we cannot expect legislation alone to secure improvements".
Mr Galbraith picked up the theme raised in his Labour Party conference speech by Donald Dewar, the First Minister, that new technology would change the way pupils learn and are taught. It might even change the way schools and classes are organised and alter "conventional ideas of what constitutes a school day or school year", Mr Galbraith said.
In his closing remarks, Mr Peacock also hinted that ministers were "relaxed" about further changes to placing request legislation. He was told by Mary Mulligan, chair of the Parliament's education committee, that the proposed changes made an unsatisfactory position even more difficult to understand.