PUPILS will be given greater choice over the subjects they study in a bid to prevent so many becoming "disengaged" with the education system under new plans unveiled yesterday.
Peter Peacock, the education minister, announced that a new national curriculum will be drawn up governing how young people are taught between the ages of three and 18.
But last night opposition politicians accused him of lacking the ambition necessary to bring about radical improvements in the country’s educational standards.
Mr Peacock said the current set-up, which has different arrangements for pre-school, primary, the early years of secondary and in the run-up to Standard Grade and Higher exams, was "too cluttered".
Mr Peacock said he wanted the curriculum covering the first three years of secondary school to be re-drawn to prevent so many pupils, particularly boys, becoming disenchanted with the education system.
Regulations dictating at what age pupils can sit their exams are also to be scrapped.
Youngsters will also be able to study more vocational courses rather than pursuing purely academic studies.
Mr Peacock said: "The curriculum as it stands is far too disjointed.
"People have been saying to us for a long time that we need more continuity in the system.
"One major problem is that kids between S1 and S3 are disengaging because they are not being challenged enough and consequently they lose interest.
"We need to make sure that the curriculum is much more relevant, much more tightly focused and engages with pupils."
Among the proposals are plans to modernise the way science is taught in schools, Mr Peacock said.
The minister also confirmed that a "Leadership Academy", partly funded by the millionaire entrepreneur Tom Hunter, will also be set up to improve headteachers’ management skills.
The academy will be based on the successful Columba 1400 pilot project on Skye. This project provided leadership training for around 100 headteachers and their deputies over the past two years.
Headteachers will also be given greater autonomy and control of 90 per cent of their school budget, the minister said.
The move was welcomed last night by Bill McGregor, the president of the Headteachers’ Association of Scotland.
He said: "Anything that can be done to enhance the professionalism of our senior teachers has to be a good thing."
Mr Peacock also gave more details about the Executive’s "Schools of Ambition" programme.
This was greeted with widespread confusion when Jack McConnell first announced it two months ago.
Under the scheme, at least 20 of the worst-performing schools will receive additional funding in an attempt to turn around their performance.
Some of the extra cash will come from private sources, with the Tory peer Lord Laidlaw likely to donate some money. However, the education minister insisted the money would not buy any influence over education policy.
He said: "We are in discussions with Lord Laidlaw about the Schools of Ambition, and he is expressing a real interest in participating.
"But that’s not going to give him a say in the curriculum or staff; it’s about him wanting to make a difference."
Mr Peacock said the reforms, contained in a 24-page document "Ambitious, Excellent Schools" unveiled in Edinburgh, were "the most comprehensive modernisation programme in our schools for a generation". Among the other measures unveiled yesterday was a review of the future of the Standard Grade, with the results due by 2007.
A new "standard of excellence" will also be introduced for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education reports into school performance.
But opposition parties said the reforms did not go far enough, while council leaders voiced concern that too much power was being taken away from local authorities.
Fiona Hyslop, the SNP education spokeswoman, said the reforms would benefit only a small proportion of Scotland’s school population.
She said: "There are welcome changes, but these will impact at the margins for a relatively small number of pupils whereas what we need are measures to provide a national impetus to realise national ambitions for education.
"The review is welcome and some of the proposals in the document are exactly what the SNP has been calling for, but it is not revolutionary by any means.
"This document, which was to change Scottish education completely, shows much in the way of setting targets to set targets, the policy equivalent of talks about talks."
The Scottish Conservatives’ education spokesman, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, said the Executive’s plans were "grossly insufficient".
He said: "We want genuine reform throughout Scotland so that every child can reach their potential.
"There is no point in giving headteachers leadership training if they are then not allowed to lead and continue to have their hands tied by national and local politicians who control the purse strings and waste millions of pounds on central bureaucracy," he said. "We want parents to be empowered to make their own choices in the best interests of their children, and this will not happen under this government’s half-hearted reforms."
Councillor Rev Ewan Aitken, the education spokesman for the local authority umbrella group COSLA, said: "While COSLA welcomes the Scottish Executive’s commitment to developing and improving local authority education services, it is important to remember that councils are the cornerstone in managing and delivering school education.
"All children are entitled to expect the very best standard in education, regardless of socio-economic status or geographical location."