Advantage target A

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
AS SECONDARY schools are about to publish their targets for Standard grades based on the HMI Audit Unit's initiative, I wish to argue again that the project contains serious flaws in the interpretation and application of these statistics.

To illustrate this, and the probably undesirable effects on schools, let us take a local authority where one school (A) is being set a four per cent improvement target in Standard grades (bands 1-2 and 2-4) and five other schools are being set 10 per cent targets. Although the information for each school only goes to teachers and parents of that school, it is almost inevitable that all the targets will become general knowledge.

What will follow will be the widespread belief that school A has been in recent years delivering a higher quality of teaching and management (school related factors) than the others. As this is likely to have repercussions in terms of parent demand and stress on teaching staff, it is important that everyone appreciates the lack of good evidence for the conclusion about school A.

HMI's target-setting initiative depends heavily on the assumption that once there is "control" of the variable of socio-economic disadvantage (via free school meals - FSM) the remaining variance in Standard grade results is very largely due to factors within the control of schools. To bolster its case, the Audit Unit quotes statistics from the Improving School Effectiveness Project. This study shows a higher variance in attainment due to school factors than an earlier study using Aberdeenshire schools by Edinburgh University.

I believe we need a measure of home background and advantage such as the percentage of parents who are educated beyond school level. Although there will be some overlap, this should give information beyond what is given by disadvantage measures like FSM.

The need for an advantage measure is reinforced by the fact that schools with a highly advantaged profile almost always "do well" even after control of disadvantage via FSM.

In considering school A, which happens to be highly "advantaged", and the others, all we have on the basis of the Audit Unit's FSM adjusted statistics is a set of disputed probabilities. With all these uncertainties, it is difficult to see how any school in the local authority in question could be fairly held to account for failure to achieve a higher target than that set for school A.

Michael Davenport

Bank Road, East Linton

East Lothian

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