The Secretary of State's announcement this week that he was instituting an enquiry into teaching methods in primary and secondary schools caught even the Scottish Office on the hop.
Michael Forsyth's initiative, which will focus on the merits of mixed-ability teaching, was leaked in the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, issued a hurried confirmation late on Wednesday, presenting the move as a follow-up by the Inspectorate to its 1993 report on the education of able pupils in P6-S2 and the 1994 practical guide to the 5-14 programme.
Mr Forsyth is widely thought to be attempting to capitalise on the Labour party's difficulties over selection in England. But the issue of "differentiation" in pupils' learning is not a new one on his agenda. He first visited the topic in a controversial foreword to the draft 5-14 report on environmental studies in December 1991. As education minister he stressed then that he wanted more setting by subject ability in S1 and S2, not "streaming by some measure of general ability".
Mr Forsyth said this week that his aim was to foster "selection within schools, not selection for schools". Mr Robertson said the Inspectorate had been asked to report on good practice in class organisation and management.
HMIs have repeatedly expressed concern that school inspections and the Assessment of Achievement Programme have revealed a lack of progress among S1S2 pupils. Teachers lack confidence in dealing with abler pupils, according to an evaluation of the 5-14 curriculum published by the Scottish Office last November.
Mr Forsyth's concern is shared by Astrid Ritchie, who chairs the Scottish Conservatives' education policy committee. Mrs Ritchie denounced mixed-ability teaching in S1 and S2 as a "disgrace" and said it was the last major area of education that awaited reform in Scotland.
Personal progression, she pointed out, was taken for granted among younger children yet a pupil who leaves primary school with a level D in maths but a level E in English was pitched into a common course for all subjects. Differentiation was also a feature of Standard grade and the proposed post-16 reforms.
Mrs Ritchie said a change to setting by subject would be popular with parents. But David Hutchison, president of the Scottish School Board Association, said he was not aware of any parental unhappiness with mixed ability teaching. "Parents don't want to see their children classified into higher and lower ability groupings," he added.
Mr Forsyth will, however, find an ally in Douglas Osler, who takes over at the helm of the Inspectorate in May and has long challenged uncritical mixed-ability teaching. Mr Osler ruled out streaming during a keynote speech in 1992 but noted that "children learn best when they are in the company of those of a similar ability who are engaged on similar work".
The 5-14 practical guide urged teachers to "give careful thought to decisions about grouping pupils by attainment or using social or mixed ability groups". Primary schools should use attainment groups across all areas of the curriculuma and secondary teachers should use attainment groups more frequently to ensure all pupils made progress from P7. Class, group and individual methods all had their place in teaching, the guide stated.