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Labour's search for a viable gold standard;Opinion

Numeracy is essential if for no other reason than to understand what the Government is doing to education. This week we have an attempt to give relative ratings to Advanced Highers and A-levels, plus details of how schools will be compared with one another and given targets to aim for. Faced with such figuring the temptation is less to respond that you can argue anything with statistics than to look for the hidden agenda. What does the Government want to achieve by the exercise?

The worth of qualifications needs to be compared for good reasons. Universities and colleges accept incomers with a range of exam passes. Notoriously in the past, some academic departments started first-year teaching at A-level or Sixth Year Studies level rather than Higher. Scots pupils seeking a place at an English university have been handicapped by the claim, now proved false, that three Highers are equal to two A-levels. The relationship is more complex although two-year courses such as A-level ought to cover more ground than those lasting only a year.

The research by the Scottish Qualifications Authority indicates that the new Advanced Higher should stand at least equal to A-level and indeed demand a better performance to secure a "pass". For schools the trick will be to combine depth of study (an A-level characteristic) with breadth of choice, a Scottish virtue that should not be sacrificed.

But there is another balancing act - that between preserving the four-year honours degree and allowing or encouraging well qualified Scottish students to join holders of good A-levels in bypassing the first year. The Government is accused of harbouring hopes that a growing uptake of Advanced Highers - combined with the Garrick committee's general bachelor degree - will cut the number of four-year students. The Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals has reiterated opposition to such covert cost-cutting.

Schools, especially primaries, tend not to express their aspirations in quantitative terms. That is due to change with the arrival of targets. The Government is keen to show that schools will "own" their own targets by having participated in their setting, along with the education authority. The Government's Audit Unit which has devised the statistical framework and methodology is confident that for most schools the targets will accord with those acceptable to authorities and individual headteachers.

The procedures may prove robust but the opportunities for voicing suspicions and demands are great. During inspections teachers have found that rigid adherence to supposedly advisory guidelines has proved essential to getting a good report. They will not relish instruments of measurement. Or if they accept the necessity of comparing like with like, of fixing targets for all schools and therefore of dealing in percentages, they will step up pressure for better staff development and more resources.

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