The drive on standards will increasingly focus on huge variations in examination results across the country. This will be brought into sharper relief as the "school characteristic index" groups schools with similar backgrounds, some of which are performing much better than others.
Gone will be the excuse, furnished by raw figures, that inappropriate comparisons are being made between Bearsden and Castlemilk. Schools will have to agree they are in the right band and that the target of aiming to match the best in their group is realistic. Nine groups of schools have been identified with broadly similar characteristics.
Last year's exam tables showed that 27 per cent of fourth-year pupils achieved five or more Standard grades at Credit level, ranging from more than 60 per cent in Dunblane High, Williamwood High in East Renfrewshire and Aith Junior High in Shetland to below 10 per cent in 24 secondary schools.
This does not reveal very much until the performance is clustered according to school characteristic. On an index of 20-180, most schools are in a band from 80-120 with vastly different results from schools in similar circumstances.
The Inspectorate's intention is that schools should initially aim to match at least the average attainment levels for their group. If, for example, 61 per cent of pupils are achieving the appropriate standard for reading in primaries 3, 4, 6 and 7 and the average in similar but better performing schools is 73 per cent, the school would be expected to bridge the 12 per cent gap over the three years of the target period (new targets will be established every three years).
This could be achieved by taking the same number of pupils to level A in primary 3, three more to level B in primary 4, four more to level C in primary 6 and six more to level D in primary 7. The same process could be repeated in secondary schools using the numbers achieving level E in second year.
Literacy and numeracy would continue to be given priority into S4, the Inspectorate suggests, with all children achieving at least a Standard grade 6 in English language and maths - irrespective of the school's characteristics.
Other attainment targets would include the proportions in fourth year achieving five or more Standard grades 1-4, gaining five or more Standard grade 1-2 and passing three or more Highers at A-C in S5. These targets would be set in line with school characteristics and schools would be expected to do as well as the better performing schools in their group, which would be "a powerful spur to improved performance", the Scottish Office believes.
The Inspectorate's view is that the number of pupils achieving the broad attainment target for Standard grade 1-4 should rise by 4 per cent over three years. The average increase in recent years has only been 1 per cent.