THE Scottish Executive this week issued what is effectively a national development plan for education.
Ministers have agreed new "national priorities", including measures of performance, to which schools and local authorities will be legally obliged to adhere when drawing up "local improvement objectives" under the terms of the education Bill.
These will be linked to individual school development plans and schools and authorities will both report each year on progress in meeting the new targets.
The priorities will be subject to a lengthy consultation period lasting until August. Discussions will then be opened with education authorities once the Bill becomes law, probably in the autumn. The aim is to introduce the new framework in August next year when the current target-setting regime comes to an end.
"We are trying to get structure and discipline into the system," one senior official said, "and to get away from initiative-itis." Ministers believe they have struck a balance between national direction and local empowerment. But the credibility of the system will depend on whether the Government is seen to be keeping its side of the bargain since the priorities include "inputs" such as resourcing and well-motivated teachers.
Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, said the priorities "will identify the fundamentally important outcomes of school education that will prepare all our young people for their future". Although the framework does not abandon the regime of exam tables and target-setting, it wants to shift the focus to the all-round achievements of schools.
That means school self-evaluation will continue to be at the heart of Scotland's "pioneering approach", Mr Galbraith said. This will be "rigorous" and quality controls operated by schools will be scrutinised during the inspection of education authorities, which is also part of the Bill. But future targets "should not be imposed or mandated centrally", the Executive's draft paper states.
The only target to be stipulated at national level will be that of cutting pupil exclusions by a third by 2003. Attainment targets, which will continue to cover literacy and numeracy, 5-14 performance, Standard grade and Higher results, will be set and agreed between schools and authorities. But they will be expected to use benchmarking information based on the performance of schools in similar circumstances.
Officials admit that "welfare indicators", such as the free meal entitlement used to set the current targets, will become less reliable if measures such as the working families tax credit succeed in reducing numbers on benefit. Value-added measures, however, must be "relevant, clearly understood and capable of simple interpretation and expression".
POINTERS TO A SUCCESSFUL SCHOOL.
The proposed priorities take the form of key outcomes, key inputs and "action areas" to tackle immediate problems.
* Outcomes and inputs cover seven broad areas. Outcomes, which will be measured, are: core skills such as the use of IT, problem-solving and criticial thinking; national qualifications; successful inclusion programmes such as reducing exclusions, halving the number of 16-19s not in education, training or a job, and raising the performance of the lowest attaining pupils.
Inputs proposed are a professional teaching staff as measured by those who hold the headteacher qualification and who are involved in continuous professional development; a "safe and pleasant learning environment" including measuring levels of bullying and racism; investment in school buildings and in technology; a positive ethos gauged by parental surveys; and effective use of resources.
* Three "action areas" are identified - the transition from primary to secondary and S1-S2 performance in particular; raising the attainment of boys; and setting targets for "weak" areas of the curriculum such as modern languages and science.
* A place is promised for Gaelic-medium education among the priorities so there is "greater account of the demands from local parents". Leader, page 14