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Scotland ploughs its own furrow

The Scottish Office Education Department, so it hopes, benefits by comparison with the Department for Education. It strenuously avoids any suggestion of "league tables". Because of the profusion of information spanning so many different examinations in different stages of schooling, meaningful leagues are impossible to construct. Hence no newspaper has been able to publish a national ranking of Scotish schools. College results are not published in Scotland and there is also a commitment not to issue primary school test results.

In addition, the SOED peppers its 75-page report with health warnings about over-reliance on exams in judging schools. Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the Scottish Education Minister, repeated at Monday's press conference in Edinburgh that the results should be studied "in context" alongside other factors such as the quality of learning and school ethos.

Nisbet Gallacher, his senior chief inspector of schools, went further and declared that the publication of exam results "is not about drawing conclusions, but about asking questions".

The SOED stresses, too, its distinctive approach of issuing three successive years' results so that trends can be seen over time and "snapshot" judgments avoided. Thus Lord James was able to say that more youngsters are achieving the top levels in both the Standard and Higher grade exams, taken by 16 and 17 to 18-year-olds respectively.

He added, however, that "it would be sensible to be cautious in drawing too firm conclusions about trends at this stage. There are signs of improvement, although this will need to be confirmed in future reports."

These future reports could be very different from the present format and the prospect is of schools and parents - and newspapers - being deluged with even more information. The SOED is promising to extend the "volume and range" of exam information in due course.

Although Scottish Office ministers have already approved an investigation along with the Labour-led Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to explore its possibilities, this extra information is unlikely to include value-added measures for some time yet. An interim report from a joint working party has concluded that such detail which measures pupils' improvement between entering and leaving school would be "a valuable additional indicator of a school's performance". But this requires a reliable measure of attainment on entry to first year in secondary and, as Mr Gallacher confirmed on Monday, there is at present no such thing.

The key word from the interim report is, in any case, "additional". There is no suggestion, even in Scotland, of substituting "raw" results with more humane tables. Lord James repeated the commitment to present unadorned exam results as a "starting point" in the attack on under-achievement and "because parents have a right to know".

Labour's apparent conversion in this direction south of the border has already drawn the ire of Jim Martin, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, the largest union, who has written to the Shadow Scottish Secretary demanding that he distance himself from Mr Blunkett.

The education authorities, ranging from Labour-dominated Strathclyde to the rainbow coalition of Scottish Nationalists and Liberal Democrats which rules over Aberdeen-based Grampian, are similarly implacable.

Grampian, which is probing the performance of its 37 secondary schools in a three-year study with the help of Edinburgh University academics, published interim findings this week showing that attainment in examinations varies considerably but that "these differences are very poor indicators indeed of the quality of schooling or of the improvements a school is making". The differences overwhelmingly reflect differences in school intake, it states.

Strathclyde mounts its assault from the lofty position of having six of the top eight Scottish schools - or five of the top 11, depending on which benchmark is used - within its boundaries. Since it contains half of the Scottish population, albeit with most of the deprivation as well, this may not count as much of a performance.

But Frank Pignatelli, the region's director of education, agrees with Grampian and points to the kind of achievement raw results ignore - a 16 per cent increase last year in the number of Glasgow pupils gaining the top credit award at Standard grade against a background where more than half the city's secondary pupils receive poverty grants for clothing.

Nisbet Gallacher defended the Government's approach last year in a famous phrase: "For raw (results), read actual." The general riposte from many schools is: "For attainment, do not read achievement."

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