An extraordinary performance by the Scottish Secretary this week saw him donning two different hats to announce a series of significant decisions. As head of the Government in Scotland, Michael Forsyth issued the long-heralded consultation paper on making external testing compulsory in the first two years of secondary school.
Then, in his role as leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, he called a press conference at short notice to unveil an "education standards guarantee to parents". This will be the main plank in the Tory manifesto and was timed to coincide with a similar statement by the Prime Minister in London.
The second announcement was classed as a party matter so, within civil service rules, the Scottish Office affected not to know about it. But its significance is vast and includes the setting of moving performance targets for all primary and secondary schools as well as publication of test results at all the 5-14 stages.
The Educational Institute of Scotland accused Mr Forsyth of having "totally confused his role as a senior representative of the Government with the naked self-interest of the Conservative Party in Scotland". It was "inappropriate and demeaning", Ronnie Smith, the union's general secretary, said.
Mr Forsyth, however, continued to press what he described as "a radical agenda to deliver standards in our schools and a guarantee to parents that these standards will be delivered". At the heart of his party's manifesto is the unexpected move to tie school performance more firmly to the achievement of national education and training targets (page four). Progress has been sluggish and Mr Forsyth said the guarantee to parents would "ratchet up national standards through the aggregate effect of each individual school's endeavour".
The school targets will comprise completion rates for each of the
5-14 stages in reading, writing and maths, Standard grade results for the 14-16 age-group and performance in Highers and SVQs for the post-16s. Targets would be set for each school by the Audit Unit taking account of its "characteristics and current performance ".
Mr Forsyth revealed that the national working group on value-added measures had identified nine different kinds of school with similar intakes; these bands will act as a guide in setting targets and monitoring how well schools are doing.
Mr Forsyth this week played down any suggestion of deploying English-style HMI "hit squads" and said problems of underperformance were not as serious as south of the border. He also said he had no plans "at the moment" for commissioners to take over the running of any school judged to be failing.
The announcements will mean a significant increase in the role of the Inspectorate, already under fire from the teacher unions for being indistinguishable from its political masters. But Mr Forsyth says it is the audit function of HMI rather than general inspections of schools that will bear the brunt of the changes.
A tightening of controls on schools and education authorities is also evident in the decision to test S1 and S2 pupils, although parents will have the right to withdraw their children. The main concession is that testing will take place around Easter, an attempt to avoid the sensitive charge of reintroducing an "11-plus" test as soon as pupils leave primary.
A new level F, put on ice by the previous Education Minister as a concession to the unions, is being added to the 5-14 programme to stretch the most able.
The latest Scottish Office figures show that while 90 per cent of primary children are now being tested the S1S2 rates for reading, writing and maths are 9 per cent, 5 per cent and 8 per cent respectively. Mr Forsyth claims this "dislocates" the 5-14 programme because pupils cease to be tested against national standards.
Publication of primary test results marks a U-turn from an assurance given to school boards in 1993 that "there will be no central collection of results in Scotland and no league tables based on national test results".
Mr Forsyth argues, however, that parents are entitled to as much school information as possible, declaring: "It is not acceptable that children's schooling should be conducted according to the rules of blind man's buff. "