DESPITE the pounding from the Iraq war, Labour and the Liberal Democrats remain on track to emerge as the governing parties in the second, revived Scottish Parliament following the election on May 1. To judge by their manifestos, it will be more of the same in education. Labour's plans were already unveiled through the ministerial response to the national debate in early March and as is often claimed - not least by the Tories - the party appears to have stolen many of right's best ideas. Tough on the basics, tough on local authorities, tough on failing schools, tough on classroom louts. Tough, you might say, on any relaxation of the centralist approach.
Labour's agenda bears the Jack McConnell hallmark of more prescription for schools and local authorities, very definitely borrowing from the English experience where the Prime Minister has firmly signalled the end of comprehensive schools. The First Minister will not go as far, and could not, but is sharpening prospective powers for the next stage of his improvement agenda. The inspectorate is already being honed to focus on failing schools and authorities and provide "support" in the 15 per cent of primaries (around 300) and 20 per cent of secondaries (around 70) where leadership is said to be poor.
Ministers have so far ruled out sending in hit squads, opting to raise the pressure on authorities by threatening further legislation. The warning is clear. If you do not run sound quality assurance checks and schools perform poorly, ministers will intervene. As recent evidence south of the border shows, that could mean sending in "successful" education directors to aid struggling authorities. It is not clear whether powers would extend to removing headteachers and dispatching "successful" heads to take over. Such strategies have had limited success in England.
The overall message of macho administration from Edinburgh runs counter to the improvement approach in schools and authorities which is progressively being backed by new standards of professional competency and in-service training. Those should surely be given time to succeed before the minister most likely to be returned on May 1 sticks his boot in.