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Up against the clock - but achievement is on course

Neil Munro summarises the findings of the first report from HMI to cover

national and education authority targets.

SCHOOLS have made some progress towards meeting 2001 targets for 5-14, Standard grades and Highers - but their performance so far makes the targets in some areas well-nigh impossible in the time set.

The report from HMI's audit unit shows that, on the measure of five Standard grades and two Highers, schools are between 1 per cent and 3 per cent adrift of the targets. But the figures show that current progress, based on the average performance of fourth-year pupils from 1997-99, has hardly budged compared with the starting levels calculated over 1995-97.

Nearest the target of 94.1 per cent is the 93.1 per cent who have at least a Standard grade 6 in English, the one secondary exam measure almost certain to be achieved. Overall progress with Standard grade is described as "promising" but little advance is evident at Higher.

The summary tables, which name authorities but not schools, also provide information on 5-14 attainment which shows exactly the reverse of the other measures - more progress beyond starting levels but with much more ground to make up.

In primaries, 73.1 per cent are at their expected 5-14 levels for reading, four points behind the target. Pupils are also four points below the maths target of 80.6 per cent. But in writing, the subject of a separate HMI report this week, only 60.4 per cent of pupils are at the right level, seven points behind the target.

Gaps in early secondary are, as expected, much more significant. The figure for pupils reaching level E in S2 is 46.2 per cent in reading (7.2 per cent below target), 39.5 per cent in writing (9 per cent below) and 43.3 per cent in maths (more than 11 per cent adrift).

The figures mean that, on present rates of improvement, only the 5-14 target in reading would be achieved in secondaries by 2001 although all three targets will be achieved in primary. HMI cautions, however, that the 5-14 results are self-reported by schools and are therefore not as "firm" as those for Standard grades and Highers.

The Inspectorate's cautious conclusion is that, since schools only had half the session to make an impact before they had to report their 5-14 results, and a year and a half for the other measures, "the rate of progress may be greater in future years".

The figures in the report are not clear-cut with Standard grade and Higher results and targets couched as three-year averages - thereby disguising any one year of notable attainment (and differing from The TES Scotland's comparisons, reported three weeks ago). The 5-14 data and targets, on the other hand, are for single years and are susceptible to year-on-year fluctuations.

HMI says the tables provide no more than "early indications of the patterns of progress". Despite the cautionary notes, however, schools are urged to continue working towards the targets already set.

Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector, has previously taken to task education authorities which allowed some schools to lower targets for unacceptable reasons and this week's report repeats the official view that changes to targets should be the exception where, for example, schools have closed or merged.

The inspectors' report indicates none the less that the current system is unlikely to survive, describing the initial cycle of target-setting as "very much a first step". Developments in assessment, value-added indicators and HMI's own monitoring arrangements are likely to lead to changes, they state.

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