Monitoring results makes the best better

Even a school described as "one of the best and most effective" in Scotland is not immune from weaknesses. But St Ninian's High in East Renfrewshire, encouraged like all others by the Inspectorate, believes the best kind of criticism is self-criticism.

All councils routinely draw up action plans to take account of HMI reports, but East Renfrewshire hauls headteachers before the education committee to account for their actions.

The council has also embarked on a programme of inspecting schools itself. This is being conducted by East Renfrewshire's quality development service and is billed as helping "validate the school's own ongoing self-evaluation". Carlibar primary in Barrhead is the first to receive the treatment.

Councillors are allowed to see school action plans, developed in response to HMI reports, which helps their understanding of each school's difficulties as well as deficiencies. There is no resting place even for high performing schools. "The school should seek to extend the high standards of attainment at Standard grade through to Higher and National Certificate," inspectors said of St Ninian's.

Yet 41 per cent of students at the school gained three or more Higher passes last year against a national average of 20 per cent. Success rates in National Certificate courses and in the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies were good in most subjects.

The difference between St Ninian's and the Nicolson Institute is that the Giffnock school undertakes a detailed analysis of exam performance. This allowed it to conclude that Higher history results were only fair, that pupils sometimes performed less well in Higher maths than in other subjects, although last year's performance was above the national average, and that pupils taking geography and secretarial studies had consistently poorer Higher results than in their other subjects.

The school says exam checks have now improved passes in history and maths which "have been restored to the more comforting levels of previous years".

The reason identified by St Ninian's for its failure to be consistent at Higher grade is one of wider significance - too many pupils are taking unsuitable courses. "We do not delude ourselves that this task will be easy. We ourselves need no persuasion that some pupils are following inappropriate courses.

"Over the years, however, we have found it very difficult to persuade some young people and their parents to accept our advice and the worth of the National Certificate. Even in the period since the inspection we have come under renewed attack from some parents for giving advice which, in their view, devalues their children's attainments and depresses their expectations and aspirations." St Ninian's, whose parents clearly set considerable store by an academic curriculum, is hoping these pressures will ease with the advent of Higher Still.

The school says it will now make doubly sure that pupils follow courses suited to their abilities and prior attainments, that course literature emphasises the best progression routes and gives a realistic picture of course demands, that more pupils achieve their full potential in all subjects, and that existing targets for raising attainment are met in full.

At least East Renfrewshire is putting its money where its mouth is. The council is to be the first to be subjected to an across the board inspection by HMI. Schools will then have the pleasure of being able to assess not just "how good is our school?" but "how good is our authority?"

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