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Uncertainty over powers for councils

The conference, attended by leading educational and political figures, appeared to be in some doubt as to how local government would be affected.

"The willingness of the parliament to cede real autonomy to local government in education will be a real test of its general willingness to decentralise," Professor Lindsay Paterson said.

He conceded that there were "enormous expectations" that the parliament would be a force for good in education. Research carried out at Edinburgh and Oxford Universities last year showed that 71 per cent of the public believed it would improve standards.

But Ian McCalman, national president of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said there were already unwelcome signs of a "centralising agenda", citing school effectiveness and target-setting measures. Gordon Jeyes, Stirling's director of education, also hit out at the pretence that Scottish education was not centralised, a belief inspired "because we use consensual language".

"The result of this confusion is that we have ended up with the muddle of HMI setting the agenda and measuring outcomes according to the latest wizard wheeze," Mr Jeyes said. "The challenge for the parliament is to tackle this over-prescriptive, centralised and incompetent system which has landed us with primary modern languages, national testing and the first botched attempt at staff development and appraisal."

Judith Gillespie, development manager for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said the authorities had "conspired with centralised control as a way of defending their freedom from legislation". Merv Rolfe, Lord Provost of Dundee and education convener in the former Tayside Region, said the parliament's role should be a strategic one. "It should not get into a position where it thinks it can deliver services."

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