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Target practice

Birmingham is where target-setting was born. The popular myth is that Tim Brighouse and Ted Wragg, the TES columnist and professor of education at Exeter, produced the idea on the back of a beer mat while having a drink. It's true.

The city also pioneered the drive for greater precision in its statistical gathering, delving down to individual pupil data. Today, the DFEE promotes such practice nation-wide.

One of Brighouse's key lieutenants in the drive to raise standards is John Hill, director of statistics. He is based at the Martineau teaching centre - converted from a former approved school building - in leafy Harborne. If Birmingham is to continue its climb up the national league table of education authorities, then careful monitoring of each of the 478 schools is needed.

The figures for achievement, ethnicity and gender, for "families" of schools to check against one another, come down the wires of the Birmingham grid for Hill to crunch into a strategy for what happens next.

He states the statistical truth baldly: "If you are a Bangladeshi boy born in the summer and have had no nursery education, then you are not going to do as well, statistically speaking, as a white girl with a winter birthday who has attended nursery school."

More worrying is the graph on his desk showing what happens to African-Caribbean pupils. On average, they start near the top of the attainment ladder on the baseline assessments (in reception class), drop to just above average at the end of their infant years, slip below the line by the end of primary schools and keep on dropping with a slightly accerated fall between Years 9 and 11, which leave them 18 percentage points below the authority average by the time they reach GCSE.

"You've got to ask the question: what's happening (he indicates the infant-junior divide) to disengage a significant of number of black kids, predominantly boys," says Hill, a quietly-spoken Liverpudlian.

"In Tim's performance contract, there are targets to reduce what we call the equality gap between different groups of kids. Success for Everyone (Birmingham's driving policy) is looking at addressing the achievement of those pupils and closing some of the gaps.

"In some instances, the gap has closed: among African-Caribbean boys a couple of years ago, only 13 per cent got five A to Cs. That went up to 20 per cent last year. Some progress has been made, but not as fast as we had hoped."

Hill's job is to ring the alarm bells when schools start to struggle - the earlier the better - but, more importantly, to detect the secrets of success, to find the schools that buck the trend. Hill, a governor at an inner-city secondary, believes Birmingham's statistical monitoring methods have helped it improve its schools.

"If we can identify where schools are doing well against the odds, then we can attempt to identify the good practice that is making the difference and alert other schools facing the same difficulties. The authority's size means we have significant cohorts, statistically speaking. We have a constant programme of analysis that works through the year.

"We can then use the Exocet approach - a sharp focus to utilise our resources to get the highest added value. We don't want a blunderbuss approach which is wasteful and crude."

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