Split opens on setting targets

Neil Munro

Councils send conflicting messages over plans to overhaul standards of performance

There was good news and bad news for the Government this week as one education authority gave a significant spin to ministers' target-setting agenda while another cast doubt on the approach.

North Lanarkshire announced plans effectively to enter into a contract with schools under which the council will guarantee certain levels of support in return for compliance with agreed targets.

But Aberdeen is sharply critical of the Education Minister's standards task group over plans to impose external measurements on schools' performance. The city takes particular issue with the use of qualifications held by adults living locally and free school meals to establish the effectiveness of "like schools".

North Lanarkshire is aiming to break fresh ground in Scotland by borrowing heavily from the school improvement programme in Birmingham driven by Tim Brighouse, the city's chief education officer and a key Government adviser. It plans, for example, to guarantee "experiential" programmes for every pupil, such as taking part in a public performance, residential placement or work experience, as well as putting in extra staffing and other resources.

In return schools will be expected to "improve on their previous best" by demonstrating progress towards meeting harder targets in pupil attainment. The proposals go out for consultation following approval by the council's education committee on Tuesday and will be implemented by 2001.

Michael O'Neill, the council's director of education, said the plans represented a package in which the process and experience of education is as important as progress in examinations, and in which schools have a right to expect council support as well as to demonstrate they are making progress. "It is not a narrowly focused set of targets," Mr O'Neill said.

The authority, which has already made news by breaking with the national guidelines on environmental studies to concentrate on the basics, is now moving a stage further by setting specific achievement targets.

It wants 85 per cent of pupils to reach level A in language and maths by the end of primary 2, the same proportion to be at level D in these two areas by the middle of primary 7, with 20 per cent achieving level E before entering secondary school, rising to 70 per cent when they finish their second year.

North Lanarkshire also expects the number of pupils emerging from fourth year with five or more Standard grade Credit awards to rise from 22 per cent to 28 per cent, and wants 20 per cent to have three or more Higher passes instead of 13 per cent.

Mr O'Neill stressed: "It would be unrealistic to expect schools where 30 per cent of P7 pupils are at level D to reach 85 per cent, but if they move to 40 per cent, that is progress. On the other hand, schools which are already above the suggested targets would be expected to show continuous improvement in order to help raise the overall performance of the authority."

Among the planned commitments to schools are training in pre-reading skills for 50 per cent of early years staff, two teachers in each primary to be trained in developing pupils' literacy, supported study in all secondaries and a week's outward bound experience for a quarter of the fourth year.

Aberdeen meanwhile intends to stick by primary 1 baseline assessment in measuring the performance of schools and pupils. John Stodter, director of education, says in a report that this provides predictions of attainment which can then be used to set "realistic" targets. Mr Stodter argues that the Scottish Office approach is unhelpful because it involves "retrospective analysis of past performance".

The council believes the use of "proxy indicators" such as levels of higher education and numbers receiving free meals do not truly reflect a school's characteristics. It points out that one of the most deprived schools in the city is next to the university.

Minister reinforces message, 3 North Lanarkshire under fire, TES2, page 19

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Neil Munro

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