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School targets back in the limelight

The long search for fairness in judging the performance of schools was given fresh impetus this week, with the Scottish Office breathing new life into the national working group on value-added measures which has been in abeyance since the run-up to the general election.

But the parents at whom the information is principally aimed have delivered a surprisingly emphatic rejection of the Government's target-raising plans.

The Scottish Parent Teacher Council dismisses the establishment of national targets based on figures "plucked out of the ether". Alison Kirby, the SPTC's convener, a member of the Education Minister's action group on standards, said it was "important to get away from a system which starts with statistics".

The council, anxious that the Inspectorate does not set the pace on school improvement, wants schools to set their own targets, for each year and for the longer term, using development plans.

Mrs Kirby said a statistically based system must inevitably be flawed because it cannot take account of local variables. Parents wanted "a system of target-setting which is realistic and starts in schools, and which offers targets they can realistically achieve".

Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, also supports "realistic and achievable" targets in pursuit of which the Scottish Office has set out specific national goals for literacy, numeracy and SCE exam results, due to be introduced from August. Schools would be expected to first match the average and then the best performance of schools with similar backgrounds.

Judith Gillespie of the SPTC warned: "I have always strongly believed in the importance of literacy and numeracy, but there is no point in homing in on these areas if a school is already achieving high standards. If, however, a school believes that, say, a subject department has major weaknesses it should be allowed to concentrate on that as an immediate priority."

Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector of schools, said: "Establishing targets to do with levels of attainment is relevant for all schools. It is a common agenda. While we should concentrate on raising attainment, that does not mean schools should be prevented from setting targets in other areas which have a bearing on attainment." These would include learning and teaching, attendance, school ethos, reducing exclusions, and improving early reading.

Target-setting will be further refined, in any case, if the new national steering committee resolves the complexities of value-added measures. Its challenge is to come up with a way of reporting on pupil progress rather than achievement which is workable, professionally credible and meaningful to parents.

The group is jointly headed by Scottish Office and senior education authority officials under Mr Osler's chairmanship. It will continue the work of its predecessor which reported in 1996 that it was possible to construct a value-added measure using 5-14 assessments. This followed trials in 18 primaries centring on English and maths.

This earlier work will now be reviewed and may be extended to a wider sample of primary schools and to the first two years of secondary. These measures will then have to fit with results at Standard grade, where pupil progress as they move on to Higher was reported to parents for the first time last year.

The working group's steering committee meets for the first time today (Friday).

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