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Targets showdown

Neil Munro reports on trouble between secondary heads and the Government

The Government appears to be heading for a major showdown with secondary heads, as they threaten to boycott target-setting, the flagship programme for driving up standards.

Teaching union opposition has been growing. Now secondary heads are so incensed that they have released the contents of a letter to Douglas Osler, the head of the inspectorate, complaining that the targets are another "morale-sapping rod with which to beat teachers."

Mr Osler has already faced hostile questioning from members of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, reported exclusively in The TESS two months ago. The HAS is challenging both the statistical and educational validity of the provisional targets issued to secondary schools last month.

Jim McNair, the HAS secretary, says that "many headteachers are going to be so uncomfortable with these arrangements that they will find it necessary to refuse to agree targets".

The Scottish Office has asked education authorities and their secondaries to submit by June 5 agreed final targets for literacy, numeracy and Standard grade and Higher results.

But it is clear that both authorities and schools will require considerable reassurance before then, despite the Education Minister's best endeavours to insist they have "ownership" of the targets.

At a meeting last week the Association of Directors of Education is also understood to have raised a host of objections to the accuracy of the data on which the targets are based. Heads and directors particularly distrust the reliability of the free meal statistics which are the only indicator being used to group schools with similar characteristics. The targets are then related to the highest attaining schools in each group.

The HAS has told Mr Osler that using free meals in this way has produced "glaring anomalies". One school in an area of urban deprivation sits next to a small Highland school with an outstanding record.

John Travers, past president of ADES, says his colleagues share these doubts and they want to meet the HMI audit unit to get to grips with the figures. Mr Travers represents directors on the Education Minister's standards action group, which agreed the target setting approach. He is to raise their concerns at the group's next meeting on May 14.

One director said HMI had made the whole system unnecessarily complicated. "If we want to take schools' circumstances into account, we should simply agree percentage improvements on existing levels of performance. This would also make allowances for differences between the leafy suburbs and the deprived estates."

The Scottish Office is sticking to its statistical model. But the HMI advice to education authorities reveals that only a quarter to a third of secondary schools have been given targets for Standard and Higher grade which were actually generated by the model.

Mr Travers said he hoped they could put the statistical disputes behind them as quickly as possible. "We should remember that this is all about raising standards, strengthening development planning and getting used to setting quantifiable targets."

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