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Growing climate of concern on standards

The task group appointed by the Secretary of State to advise him on underachievement admits that much of its report, Improving Achievement in Scottish Schools (TESS, December 6), is not new.

The group, chaired by Hamish Robertson, former under-secretary in the Scottish Office responsible for schools, comments: "We have reviewed the strategies towards improvement which have already been introduced in Scottish school education and have drawn some of them out for further action.

"We have sought to identify good practice and look to its dissemination in ways which will be applicable and effective in the classroom."

It set out deliberately to build on a number of Government initiatives on class organisation, teaching methodologies, the inspectorate review of S1 and S2, value-added measures of schools, efforts to improve attendance, and enterprise education.

The Government has rejected only one proposal - to mount a national advertising campaign on promoting parental involvement in their child's school and learning.

Another - to give primary heads more management time free from teaching - was left to discussion between local authorities and unions in the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee. The task force says it "feels strongly that this deficiency should be addressed".

The group, which visited 26 schools in the course of its inquiries, stresses that "any action in a single direction within schools will be successful only if it forms part of a pervading (whole-school) strategy to support effective teaching and learning".

Its report defines a problem school as one which is not founded on early progress in language and maths, on a smooth transition between primary and secondary, on entry to further and higher education, on giving pupils confidence to gain a job, start a business or live as independent a life as possible in the case of special needs youngsters.

"High achievement in education emerges when an appropriate mixture of expectations among pupils, parents and staff is aligned with genuine self-esteem within the young people," the group suggests.

The report backs the calls for more sophisticated measurements to be developed, such as the information gleaned from a value-added system, before judgments can be made about the extent of underachievement in schools. It regrets particularly the absence of national data on primary pupils' attainment, and recommends that work being carried out to develop a value-added approach be pursued with renewed vigour.

The group also points out that, even where data is available to judge how well schools are doing, the assessment of underachievement is not a clear-cut matter. "Schools which have Standard grade results well above the national average could be complacent and should perhaps do better. Others may be doing a very good job to bring their results up to the average figure.

"However, it is not difficult to identify primary and secondary schools where staff, parents and education authorities would all agree that large numbers of pupils are underachieving, often despite great efforts by the schools to improve attainment."

Successful schools, the report continues, draw together class teachers, learning support staff, and guidance teachers in secondaries to ensure there is quality support for children's learning. All teachers must see a role for themselves in ensuring learning is effective.

The report carries a health warning, however, on the importance of "appropriate expectations of schools". It says the group found "encouraging evidence of a developing climate of concern about raising the performance of pupils. It is evident that the culture and language of achievement is taking hold; a system of self-evaluation which appears to be effective and well-accepted is steadily gaining in impetus.

"We are bound to observe, however, that the schools cannot be expected to overcome or to compensate for all the circumstances in a pupil's background which may inhibit aspirations and affect performance in an adverse way.

"Indeed we would question whether the expectations placed on our schools in relation to the welfare and condition of young people do not draw unduly on teachers' time."

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