The great 'vision' comes down from the Mound

21st January 2000 at 00:00
Neil Munro outlines the key features of the Scottish Executive's Education Bill and, opposite, looks at other changes.

"VISION", according to the Scottish Executive, is at the heart of its education Bill, the first piece of major legislation to go before the Scottish Parliament.

Published yesterday (Thursday), along with ministers' response to consultation on the legislation, the plan is to have the Bill on the statute book by June. But many a slip is anticipated before then, as the provisions are scrutinised by the Parliament's education committee and then by the Parliament itself.

In a symbolic change of title, it has been decided to name the measure the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Bill as opposed to the Improving Our Schools draft Bill and its predecessor, the White Paper on Targeting Excellence.

In an unprecedented paving exercise, the Bill's appearance was preceded by a virtual festival of ministerial appearances with pupils, parents and teachers as both Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, and Peter Peacock, his deputy, attempted to underscore the advantages of the legislation for the key "stakeholders."

A flurry of activity also included media briefings and a detailed response to the consultative exercise containing many frank criticisms of some of the proposals.

The Scottish Executive Education Department is warming to what it believes is a new legislative approach which goes beyond the previous definition that education must be merely "adequate and efficient". As one senior figure put it:

"This is about a vision for education and the rights of children to the highest standards of education, whereas in the past you might have expected simply a statement of duties and obligations.

"This is not about being dragged forward by initiatives or ministerial precept."

Mr Galbraith himself said: "I am excited by what we are doing in this legislation. Children are at its heart. For the first time we are stating the right of every child and young person in Scotland to an education that is directed at the development of their personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to the fullest potential.

"In my meetings with teachers and parents this is the vision of education that was repeatedly pressed on me; it is why people become teachers. Teachers are agents of change in young minds and young lives."

The legislation will none the less have a carrot and stick approach. The Bill will give the Executive powers to set "national priorities" for education, and consultation on around 10 of these will kick off next month. Once approved, education authorities will be expected to comply with these "statutory objectives".

Councils will theoretically have more freedom of manoeuvre within this framework, such as setting fresh attainment targets once the current targets end next year. But they will still be required to draw up an "annual statement of local improvement objectives", which must be based on the national priorities, to demonstrate publicly that they are not taking their eye off the ball.

The powers being given to HMI to inspect the education functions of local authorities are intended to ensure further compliance.

Although the quality assurance industry will undoubtedly boom in the wake of the Bill, ministers have rejected calls made during the consultation for education authorities to be given more resources. "Quality assurance and the monitoring of performance is already firmly embedded within the role of local authorities," the consultation report states.

The Education Department plans, however, to give authorities time to prepare, and different sections of the Bill will come into force at different times. The intention is to pilot some of the arrangements so that, for example, the statutory educational objectives which follow the consultation on national priorities will not be published until June next year.

This means the new local improvement framework, including the successor to the current regime of attainment targets, will not be launched until the 2001-02 school session.

The key link between national and local imperatives will be school development plans, which will be put on a statutory footing. The Education Department says this requirement for annual plans was supported by the vast majority of those responding to the draft Bill. The planning process will face a new requirement to show that it is based on consultation with teachers, non-teaching staff, school boards - and pupils.

The Department repeats its pledge to provide "benchmarking information" to allow reliable comparisons between schools and education authorities, which is seen as critical for setting local improvement objectives and school development plans. The Accounts Commission will be involved in establishing the key criteria.

The Bill, while strong on setting standards and measuring them, also appears to be struggling for a rounded view of education which will include "quality indicators". These already exist, for example to measure ethos.

But the Executive says in its report that it "intends to develop this approach in consultation with authorities and schools to ensure the full range of relevant measures is used with proper rigour and that they genuinely inform and assist the planning for improvement at all levels".

The report acknowledges concerns expressed during the consultation about demotivating schools. Objectives and targets must be challenging, it states, but "if they are set at levels which fail to take realistic account of the challenges faced by particular schools, they will undermine confidence in the process". There must be support and challenge, the report adds, but schools must none the less attempt "to stretch out beyond the comfort zone".

The report notes the criticism that school performance should be seen as more than just exam results but states: "Scottish ministers would emphasise that they have an expectation of excellence in all aspects of school life and that this is not restricted to meeting attainment targets. It will be essential that such performance is seen in its proper context, but it will remain of central importance.

"Qualifications do open doors to wider opportunities and literacy and numeracy remain fundamentally important skills." HERE'S WHAT WE PROPOSE - NOW IT'S OVER TO YOU.

There were 330 responses to the consultation on the draft Bill and another 150 to the separate proposals on the General Teaching Council for Scotland. Ministers and senior officials held an unprecedented 65 meetings across Scotland.

Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, said he was confident all who had contributed "will see their hand in the Bill".

Main changes:

A right for every child of school age to have school education from a local authority.

A new duty on education authorities to provide education which allows pupils to develop to their "fullest potential".

Local authorities' "improvement objectives" must show how they intend involving parents in their children's education.

School development plans will have to state the arrangements in place to involve pupils in decision-making on matters affecting the school.

A new duty on local authorities to educate pupils unable to attend school because they are looking after a member of their family, are ill or are excluded.

A new requirement establishing a "presumption" that educating a child of school age will be in a school not a special school.

A clearer indication of how ministers will set national priorities.

A new obligation on school boards to help improve the quality of education in their schools.

School board members will no longer have any influence over the short-leeting of senior school appointments.

Local authorities to have a discretionary power to provide transport for pre-school children.

Authorities to be allowed to override parental choice and reserve places in all their schools "in the light of overall demand in the area".

Ministers will have power to vary the publication dates of improvement objectives and performance targets.

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