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Schools lag on basics

Action group on standards warned that national targets on 5-14 will be missed by a mile

PRIMARY and secondary schools are facing an uphill struggle to meet the Government's 5-14 targets on basic skills. Secondary schools in particular are performing "well below" levels set for first and second-year pupils.

A report by the Inspectorate to the Education Minister's action group on standards, which met on Wednesday, dramatically confirms findings of poor performance in the early secondary years.

The group confirmed its earlier decision that 80 per cent of primary pupils should have achieved their levels in reading, writing and maths by 2001 (aggregated from 90 per cent reaching level A and 75 per cent attaining levels B-D). The target for level E by the end of S2 is set at 75 per cent.

HMI's figures, based on education authority returns, show a major difference between primary and secondary, which ministers will seize on to berate the failure of secondaries to embrace the 5-14 programme.

In primaries, 73 per cent of pupils achieve their level for maths, 69 per cent for reading and 56 per cent for writing. But agreed targets suggest that, on average, only performance in maths will exceed 80 per cent within three years.

In secondaries, however, only 42 per cent of second-year pupils have attained level E in maths, 41 per cent in reading and 36 per cent in writing. The 75 per cent target will be missed by a mile, the best effort being achieved by S2 pupils in maths where only 55 per cent will be at level E by 2001.

The figures mean that only 24 per cent of primaries have been able to set targets above 80 per cent of their pupils at the required levels in writing, 46 per cent in reading and 59 per cent in maths.

In the secondary sector, just 9 per cent of schools have agreed to set a 75 per cent target in writing, 12 per cent in maths and 13 per cent in reading.

HMI also reveals that, while most authorities are on target for reading and maths in primary schools, none will be able to reach the 80 per cent figure in writing.

For secondary schools, only East Renfrewshire and Stirling will surpass the 75 per cent level E targets by 2001 in reading, writing and maths. Schools that have considerable leeway to make up, however, are allowed simply to halve the gap between their existing position and the targets within three years. A third to a quarter of schools are in this position.

Despite apparent certainties behind the figures, HMI acknowledges the deficiencies of the 5-14 data, which is based on teachers' judgments of the levels achieved by their pupils.

The Scottish Office will therefore issue a circular advising authorities to notify parents of schools' progress towards meeting their targets and to publish a report on the 5-14 performance of their schools. But there will not "at present" be any nationally published school-by-school tables.

* The action group also heard that six education authorities had used the leeway given to claim "exceptional circumstances" and lowered their Standard grade and Higher targets.

Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector, said some exceptions occurred when schools were given considerable autonomy to set targets. They used this to lower standards which was "worrying."

Some of the reasons, such as the arrival of a new head or too many boys in a year group, were "unacceptable and frankly absurd". The Government would not insist on these targets being changed but would expect to see them exceeded.

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