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Muted reception for school targets

The Scottish Office appears to have diluted - but not stifled - reservations about the Government's target-setting regime, unveiled on Wednesday.

Shelagh Rae, president of the Association of Directors of Education, acknowledged that HMI had listened to its concerns. But she challenged the flexibility schools would have if they are able to vary targets downwards by just 1 per cent. "The proof of the pudding will be in the eating and we will only know whether the targets are realistic when we look at the situation in each school," Mrs Rae said.

But Elizabeth Maginnis, the authorities' education spokesperson, said the new targets were "rooted in best practice and offer a realistic, achievable and fair way forward".

Brian Wilson paid heed to the sensitivities when he assured schools this week that targets would not be imposed. "Such a centralist approach would be demotivating," Mr Wilson said. "Schools must feel they have a sense of ownership of the targets. The quality assurance and strategic management role of education authorities is critical."

But at least one member of Mr Wilson's action group, Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said he "remained to be persuaded about how dirigiste the Inspectorate intends to be". Mr Smith said: "I fear that the perception of schools, and it is the perception which matters, is that this is another imposition without substance in the form of additional support or resources."

Douglas Osler, the head of the Inspectorate, answered calls for more resources by declaring: "We are simply asking schools to do what good schools are already doing which is to get the maximum attainment out of their pupils, in which the emphasis is on good teaching, a focus on attainment, good ethos and improved attendance."

John MacBeath, director of the Quality in Education Centre, said: "We have got to keep a weather eye on this issue of ownership because it is the key to the whole thing working." There would always be a tension between top-down and bottom-up approaches, between ownership and accountability, between transparency and development.

Professor MacBeath, another member of the action group, agreed that the Scottish Office had been listening and come up with "a good working model although it can clearly be improved on".

Joyce Ferguson, headteacher of Abercromby primary in Tullibody and another action group member, said the targets "simply formalise what a lot of good schools are doing already. We all want to do better and improve the performance of pupils."

The incorporation of the targets into school development planning, which is based on self-evaluation, was an important plank in the initiative, Miss Ferguson said.

The strongest complaint from within the action group came from Alison Kirby, convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. Mrs Kirby said the group's meetings had been too short to discuss any alternative approaches. "Inroads were made into the initial proposals but they have really amounted to damage limitation," she said.

Mrs Kirby complained that the Inspectorate's influence was unchecked. But one director attending the Scottish Office briefing thought the value in the revised targets lay in the fact that "the Inspectorate has been kept at bay".

* Special needs measures will not lead to exclusions

The proposals promise particular measures to deal with special needs pupils in separate and mainstream schools.

The inspectorate says, however, that there should be no pressure on schools to exclude such pupils because targets are based on schools' starting points.

HMI is also to draw up special measures for small primaries, perhaps by having school-wide targets or setting targets for clusters of primaries.

Schools are also to be encouraged to develop their own targets to minimise absence levels. There will be no national targets meantime.

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