The First Minister is for turning

JACK McConnell yesterday rebuffed the Prime Minister’s modernisation programme for education - despite promising a revolution in Scotland’s schools just nine days ago.

The First Minister sparked a policy rift with Westminster by rejecting proposals championed by Tony Blair to establish centres of excellence where pupils could be selected by ability, insisting that the Scottish Executive would stick with the comprehensive system.

Mr McConnell’s refusal to follow the reform agenda being pursued by Westminster caught opponents and some of his own MSPs by surprise: the First Minister appeared to suggest just over a week ago that he supported the idea of limited selection in high-achieving specialist schools.

His aides let it be known at the time that Mr McConnell believed that a return to selection was one way of driving up standards.

Mr McConnell announced his position on Scottish education during a speech to outline the Executive’s legislative programme for the coming year.

He said secondary schools would be encouraged to become centres of excellence, but - in the apparent U-turn - insisted there would be no form of selection.

In England, so-called specialist City Academies, partly funded by the private sector, can select up to 10 per cent of their pupils by aptitude as part of the government’s drive to abolish the "bog-standard" comprehensive.

But Mr McConnell said schools that became centres of excellence in subjects such as sport, music or modern languages would continue to take pupils from their catchment areas, with numbers topped up by placing requests.

The First Minister said plans to allow comprehensive schools to diversify would be backed by proposals to raise standards in Scotland’s worst-performing schools. Twenty secondary schools identified by local authorities and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education would be forced to sign up to improvement targets and given additional money and leadership training to help them achieve their goals.

The announcements came on a difficult opening day for the new parliament building after protesters daubed paint on the walls, staff briefly lost the key for the front door, the public gallery had to be cleared after a protest and chamber business came to an early halt after the sound system broke down.

One of the most controversial proposals from the new legislation is a plan to introduce "quickie" divorces, which is set to put ministers at loggerheads with the Catholic Church only a week after the furore over the Executive’s proposals for sex education in schools.

Under the Family Law (Scotland) Bill, the period of separation required for divorce would be reduced from five years to two without consent, and from two years to one with consent.

Mr McConnell also announced a bill to protect children from the crime of "internet grooming", where children are preyed on by paedophiles.

On plans to allow schools to diversify, Mr McConnell said: "There will be centres of excellence, but let me be clear. There will be no elitist selection of pupils, but choice and diversity for different talents and ambitions will be available to all.

"I reject the calls to return to the divisive failures of the past when children were rejected at an early age."

Last night, opposition politicians dismissed the Executive’s proposals, claiming they paid only lip service to reform.

David McLetchie, the leader of the Scottish Tories, said all schools should be able to set their own selection criteria.

"Under our plans, parents may apply to any state-funded school, but as control over all aspects of policy will be devolved to the school, including staff, budget, discipline and curriculum, schools will be free to determine their own admissions policy and selection criteria."

Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy leader of the SNP, dismissed Mr McConnell’s speech as "rhetoric with little substance".

"It is one thing to announce changes to our education system, but it is another to have no real strategy or ideas about how to make them. Jack McConnell says he wants more diversity in education, but refuses point blank to give any detail. This is government by headlines and it’s not good enough."

Last night, teaching unions warned that plans for diversification could lead to selection "by the back door".

Jim Docherty, the assistant general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said: "If you set up a school which specialises in one subject then parents who have talented children will want them to go there. If that school becomes oversubscribed then there will have to be some form of selection and it would be hard to see ability being ruled out as a mechanism in that process."

However, Ronnie Smith, the general secretary of the EIS, Scotland’s biggest teaching union, said he would resist strongly any form of selection.

"We are prepared to acknowledge that there should be diversity in what schools offer, but they should still serve their local communities and they should not chose who they admit on the grounds of ability," he said.

Alex Easton, the president of the Headteachers’ Association for Scotland, said greater diversity had to be

"within the overall concept of the comprehensive model, which parents in Scotland support".

The education spokesman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Rev Ewan Aitken, said: "Councils are committed to raising the bar of quality as the best way to support the aspirations and aims for both our schools and our pupils."

Despite rhetoric, pupils will be left behind by these hollow promises

HAMISH MacDONELL

THE rhetoric promised so much it even bordered on the inspirational.

Jack McConnell was setting out his legislative plans for the next year and promised a revolution in Scotland’s schools.

"We will unveil the most comprehensive modernisation programme of our secondary schools for a generation," he announced.

So what was the First Minister’s great idea? Had he, as had been whispered by his aides, decided to allow a bit of selection in Scotland’s schools, allowing Scotland to follow the reforms pioneered by the Prime Minister?

Nothing, it turned out, could have been further from Mr McConnell’s mind. Indeed, he was categoric, stating: "There will be no elitist selection of pupils."

But there was such confusion about his "revolution" in Scotland’s schools that no-one (except probably Peter Peacock, the education minister) actually knew what he was on about.

Mr McConnell had promised "centres of excellence", allowing schools to diversify and specialise in fields such as modern languages or science.

These schools would then be given more money but, having achieved such high standards, they will be able to do nothing to bring in the pupils with an aptitude for these subjects, leaving them to languish in schools which will neither challenge them nor allow them to excel.

Mr McConnell promised private sector investment in schools but refused to say how this would happen.

He then invented the most New Labour of all euphemisms - "schools of ambition".

These sound like "centres of excellence" but could not be more different. The first 20 "schools of ambition" will be Scotland’s 20 worst schools. They will be given extra cash to help them improve and their headteachers given "leadership lessons" to drive up standards.

At the same time, Tony Blair is allowing schools to become real "centres of excellence", selecting the best pupils who will benefit from a specialist education and allowing the diversity which Mr McConnell promised but has failed to deliver.

The First Minister announced a dozen bills which the Executive hopes to introduce over the next year. None was surprising because all had been trailed in consultations and reviews.

One or two of the measures will, however, prove to be contentious and will cause problems for the Executive.

Of these, the Family Law Bill is the most striking. Ministers have been consulting on plans to speed up divorce since 1999, but it has taken until now for them to have the guts to introduce a bill. They know any legislation making it easier to get a divorce will infuriate moral and religious conservatives. And given the abrasive stance the Catholic Church has taken on plans to liberalise sex education, the divorce bill is certain to run into fierce opposition.

The Health Services Bill to introduce free eye and dental checks for all will also not prove to be the cakewalk some might believe. Leading optometrists have warned that free eye checks for all is not the best way to proceed, arguing for targeted help towards those in need.

Some Labour MSPs share this view, aware that the measure is only being introduced because it was forced on the Executive by the Liberal Democrats.

The Licensing Bill is being introduced with the worthwhile intention of curbing binge drinking. It will crack down on irresponsible promotions but has one omission.

The Nicholson Report, on which it is based, recommended a pilot project to assess the sale of alcohol in football grounds. This was left out of the bill, despite the success of the sale of beer in football grounds in England and the support of senior police and safety officers from north and south of the Border.

This issue will not go away and ministers will have to answer to fans who ask why they cannot enjoy a drink at the football while those in corporate hospitality areas - including politicians - can drink as much as they want.

There are a few problems ahead for Mr McConnell but none will compare to the difficulty he will have convincing the electorate to support him if, as seems likely, Scottish schools are left behind by England’s reform-driven state sector.

A BUSY YEAR AHEAD

• The Budget Bill

Will give the Executive the authority to spend the money given to it by the Treasury.

• The Charities and Trustee Investment Bill

Will deal with bogus charities.

• The Environmental Assessment Bill

Will make public bodies take account of the environment.

• The Family Law Bill

Will cut the time for divorce from five years to two if contested and from two years to one if uncontested.

• The Further and Higher Education Bill

Will merge funding councils.

• The Gaelic Language Bill

Will set up a development body.

• The Health Service (Misc Provisions) Bill

Will introduce free eye and dental checks.

• The Housing Bill

Will pave the way for single seller surveys.

• The Licensing Bill

Will let authorities end certain drink promotions.

• The Prevention of Female Genital Mutilation Bill

Will bring law into line with England and Wales.

• The Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences Bill

Will deal with "grooming" on the internet by paedophiles.

• The Transport Bill

Will give OAPs free bus travel.