Neil Munro and David Henderson report from the annual Edinburgh conference, run by the TESS and the city council
SCHOOLS must be built around the needs of the pupil not teachers, Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, told this year's Edinburgh conference.
"If this Government is about anything, it's about delivering for the individual pupil not about structures or producer agendas," Mr Galbraith said.
"We are not committed to improvement because we believe Scottish education is failing - that is certainly not the case - but because we want to improve it even further. There is always room for improvement and innovation."
In a novel departure for a minister, Mr Galbraith used a Powerpoint computerised presentation to deliver parts of a speech which pinned his policies more passionately to a personal crusade than has been evident in the past.
"Education was the liberating force in my life," he said. "But we were the lucky ones. We were the ones who got the right encouragement or opportunities. We had support from our families."
The thrust of his speech, however, largely reiterated familiar ministerial refrains on the importance of the empowering role of education, the need to boost teachers' standing and the drive for ever-rising standards.
Mr Galbraith reaffirmed the Executive's determination to stick with exam performance and targets to provide firm evidence of how well schools are doing. "This cannot simply be about having a warm feeling that we are headed in the right direction. For too long this sentiment has been a debilitating weakness - 'trust me, I know when we're doing well'. Self-evaluation is necessary but it must not be based on the self-delusion of the past."
But he also went out of his way to stress that these quantitative measures must be accompanied by qualitative indicators of success such as school ethos and the extent to which schools foster pupil initiative and enterprise and impart the core personal skills.
Answering a charge from Professor Noel Entwistle of Edinburgh University that the emphasis on performance indicators could have a damaging "backwash effect" on schools, Mr Galbraith insisted: "The answer is not to ditch PIs but to refine them, improve them and introduce others."
He announced that schools and education authorities would be offered "quality benchmarking information" so they could genuinely compare their performance with others.
This would enable them to set objectives that were "challenging but realistic and achievable, recognising that a school may set an objective which is apparently lower than a neighbouring authority but which is in practice more demanding to achieve".
Mr Galbraith cited the pound;26 million investment in new community schools to claim the Executive was not intent on centralising policies. "There is no single template to show what a new community school looks like - I am against grand master plans. Diversity and local ownership are key. Different approaches are to be taken in different schools.
"The focus is the individual child, his or her family; the aim is to meet each child's needs in the round; the key is integrated provision of services."
Mr Galbraith also stressed that the Government's education policies had to be seen in the wider context of its commitment to tackle social disadvantage through measures such as the working family tax credits, the increases in child benefit and the national minimum wage.
The intention was "to break the chains of deprivation and underachievement which have bound too many for too long".