Twenty secondaries judged to be "failing" by inspectors and local authorities will be given three years to get ready for a major makeover.
By 2007, they will be expected to join the Schools for Ambition (SfA) programme, under which schools will be given extra funds from the Scottish Executive and private sector to lift their achievements significantly. Most are likely to serve disadvantaged communities and be handed the freedom to innovate.
As The TES Scotland revealed on July 16, the Hunter Foundation is set to invest heavily in the most needy schools after ploughing millions into enterprise education and teacher training. The foundation is also boosting leadership training which is viewed as a vital component of successful secondaries.
Jack McConnell, the First Minister, on Tuesday opened the Holyrood Parliament with a pledge to introduce the "most comprehensive modernisation programme of our secondary schools for a generation".
This follows earlier announcements on flexibility in the curriculum, improved vocational education opportunities, smaller class sizes in English and maths in S1 and S2, faster progression in S1 and S2, new buildings and the recruitment of more teachers.
For the first time Mr McConnell revealed that 20 secondaries "most in need of transformation" will be singled out for the new programme. "Schools will not be able to opt out of improvement or escape our attention. With our local authorities, we will expect them to reach high standards of leadership, achievement, discipline and attendance. Standards met and exceeded - throughout the school, year on year," the First Minister told MSPs.
He added: "In return, we will commit the support and resources, enhanced from private sector investment, that they need. And we will ensure they have the freedoms they need to take decisions and chart the direction necessary to become schools of excellence."
Ministers were determined to narrow the gap between the highest performing secondaries and the lowest but he ruled out any form of "elitist selection of pupils". Choice and diversity for different talents and ambitions will be available to all, he said.
The North Lanarkshire model of "enhanced" comprehensives for music and sport is favoured.
Peter Peacock, Education Minister, said that ministers would involve the private sector. "Scottish education is not for sale but open for business," Mr Peacock repeated. He will detail precise plans over the coming months but senior staff in the SfA schools will be put through the leadership programmes known as Columba 1400 training. Some heads who have been on the programme in Skye claim it is "inspirational".
Mr Peacock told The TES Scotland his approach to this latest version of "challenge and support" will be to say to the schools involved: "We know you need to improve, we know you can get there and we are prepared to put in resources to help you get there - but we also require you to get there."
The Hunter Foundation has drawn inspiration from Archbishop Michael Ramsey Technology College, a Church of England school in Southwark, London, which has an insistence on traditional values such as "courtesy, good manners and excellent standards of behaviour and work".
Every unauthorised absence is challenged. The school also runs "enrichment activities", from music competitions to links with independent schools.