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Exams no guide to underachievement

A school which is "failing" south of the border finds itself in real trouble. Its management can be relieved of their duties. It may have to endure the spotlight of unwelcome publicity. In Scotland no schools officially fail. But some underachieve, as do some pupils in other establishments.

The Government set up a task force to look at the problem, and some saw a political agenda. With standards an electoral issue but with the Government unable to make capital out of standards generally (after 17 years, how could it?), why not isolate the foot-draggers and be seen to be tough? Despite the evidence, many believe - particularly older, more conservative voters - that pupil performance is sloppier and schools less demanding than in times of yore.

It would be hard to draw electorally useful messages from the task force report (pages four and five). Its authors having visited 26 schools are more interested in suggesting ways in which examples of good practice can be picked up across the system than in wagging the finger or issuing admonitions. An initiative pioneered by local authorities - early intervention with P1-3 literacy problems - is commended just as is the Government's desire to see more ability-based setting of classes. Ministerial response strikes much the same note: there is to be Pounds 9 million extra for early intervention schemes.

Attempts to define and tackle "underachievement" run immediately into the problem of separating poor performance by teachers or the headteacher from that originating in the composition of pupil intake. Isolating and handling teacher incompetence are not the task force's concern, although recommendations for more effective quality and evaluation systems might bring shortcomings into early focus. Of the range of positive ideas put forward in the report, most will already be familiar to staffs tackling the educational problems that flow from deprivation and family difficulties. As Glasgow council has recently emphasised, social problems are no defence in the face of poor performance. They are a reason and a challenge, not an excuse.

It is therefore a pity that the task force seeks, almost as an aside, to define secondary "underachievement" by exam performance (page one). Schools which fall below the arbitrarily defined level of acceptability may be the hardest-working. They and their pupils should not be marked with a brand similar to the "failing" stamp south of the border.

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