THE Scottish Executive is preparing to bow to growing demands that schools should be allowed to reach their own decisions on excluding pupils, unencumbered by national targets.
Amended guidelines on exclusion will be issued later in the year, Peter Peacock revealed this week in his first full interview since becoming Education Minister.
Mr Peacock is anxious to be seen as a "listening minister" but this early decision is probably no more than a recognition that the Executive's cherished inclusion policy is in danger of being undermined by increasing resistance to what is seen as its imposition on schools - concerns which were highlighted at all three union conferences this year and last.
Mr Peacock told The TES Scotland that the new guidelines would move from an emphasis on "the rights of offenders" to the rights of the majority, in the context of encouraging schools to develop "a positive climate for learning". There would be recognition that exclusion might be necessary as a last resort.
He added: "We at the centre are not going to second-guess headteachers who have to make these difficult decisions on a day to day basis." And in the strongest signal yet, he promised: "No target will take precedence over the decisions of headteachers."
Mr Peacock has already announced that improving discipline will be his top priority. He will set up specialist "reference groups" to advise him. He will also make private visits to schools with good disciplinary regimes and make money available for others to learn from their practice, perhaps through masterclasses.
In another move to meet critics, Mr Peacock revealed that he is to reconsider some of the provisions of the Additional Support for Learning Bill, which abolishes the record of special educational needs. He will take the summer to reflect on the concerns parents have expressed "to see if we can make it a better piece of legislation".
The minister confirmed that he plans to kick off consultations on curricular and assessment reforms later in the year. These were heralded by the previous Executive in its response to the national education debate, which Mr Peacock described as "a solid basis for development particularly in underpinning the principle of continuous improvement".
Mr Peacock said: "I have no blockages in my mind and (am) prepared to entertain radical thinking in the reforms that might be necessary." He acknowledged that 5-14 tests had to be replaced by a system which "has a lighter touch and is less cumbersome".
But he insisted that changes would have to support the twin purposes of assessment - providing feedback on the progress of pupils and teachers and measuring the performance of the school system as a whole.
He also made it clear he is far from enamoured of the present curriculum.
He wants it to be less prescriptive, allow more option choices from S3 and be less crowded at the 5-14 stages. The key elements should be literacy, numeracy, how people interact with the environment and "giving pupils a sense of place, how we got here and so on".
Mr Peacock insisted: "What I don't want is to have people queuing up outside my door saying: 'Whatever else you do, make sure this is in the curriculum.'
"We need a more considered debate than that."
He went on to confirm that there would be no backtracking on the commitment to take new powers to force compliance "in extremis" with HMI's recommendations on underperforming authorities and schools. "I will be pretty intolerant of second best," Mr Peacock said. "Every child deserves the best."
But he hoped that the existence of the powers would be enough and that he would not have to use them.
Leader, page 28