Directors urge target caution

29th May 1998 at 01:00
Standards group member calls for inspectors to be reined in. Neil Munro reports

A member of the education minister's standards action group has publicly warned the inspectorate from taking too rigid an approach to target-setting during the first three years.

John Travers, who is also past president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, has written a joint letter with Shelagh Rae, the current president, to Brian Wilson, the minister.

Although it is written on behalf of the directorate, Mr Travers, the director in North Ayrshire, has signed the letter as a member of the action group.

Mr Wilson, in comments to the TES Scotland, moved once more to reassure doubters. But education directors have become increasingly concerned that what they see as essentially a positive initiative could be derailed by a tough HMI stance before it has time to be perfected. They now want a meeting with the minister.

They are particularly opposed to detailed performance results showing schools' progress towards the targets, being published at this stage.

Douglas Osler, the head of the inspectorate, argues that the Scottish Office could not legally withhold such information and that it is better to be properly presented than emerge in an ad hoc fashion when individuals or the media legitimately ask for it.

The issue has been delegated to a sub-committee of the action group (TES Scotland May 22). But ADES now wants to draw the education minister on to its side.

The association's letter to Mr Wilson stresses: "It is essential that we remain conscious that this is an untried and imperfect system and that we do not place too much reliance on the targets generated in this first cycle".

The first round of targets is to last for three years to track attainment in literacy and numeracy as well as Standard grade and Higher results. But the HMI model, which uses free meals to set targets for schools with similar socio-economic characteristics, will remain on trial during the initial period, the ADES letter states.

The letter continues: "We would urge continuing caution. In particular, we would advise against national publication of data which could lead to league tables; any attempt to use targets to stigmatise individual schools as 'failing'; and any central intervention in the responsibility of education authorities to carry out quality assurance in their areas".

ADES warns that "relying solely on the statistical data generated by the initiative, rather than regarding it as one part of an overall strategy, would lose the support of many sectors of the education community.

"We are concerned that an attempt to press ahead too quickly, based on data which has not yet been collated, far less analysed, could lead to disputes with teachers and headteachers which would divert attention from our shared priority of raising standards, and focus instead on a sterile debate about the validity of the statistical data and assumptions."

The latter points are directed particularly to doubts about the use of 5-14 national test results to generate benchmark data that would be used to set targets for the primary and early secondary years. There is no evidence that the tests have "the necessary validity, reliability and consistency," according to ADES.

Mr Wilson now has to stick by the policy while at the same time offering reassurance. "Schools must feel comfortable with the targets which must reflect their circumstances," he said. "That cannot be stressed often enough."

The Minister believes there has been a misunderstanding over the extent of the leeway being given to schools to vary their targets. The one per cent reduction in the minimum target of a four per cent improvement on Standard grade and Higher results over three years has been heavily criticised.

But Mr Wilson points out this is not one per cent of 100 per cent but one per cent from four per cent, which can allow flexibility of 20 to 30 per cent.

Meanwhile Stirling Council became the latest authority to offer trenchant criticism of the target plans.

But despite condemning the "seriously flawed" deprivation index on which the targets are based, the council has endorsed the initiative "subject to the benefits of the details of targets being negotiated locally" Although his own report takes the methodology to task, Gordon Jeyes, Stirling's director of education, said it was important "to focus on methods of school improvement and not get bogged down in flawed statistics and the size of a particular target" Nonetheless the council remains particularly concerned at the use of 5-14 attainment levels to develop primary school targets. "These levels were introduced as descriptions of best practice and never meant as targets," Tommy Brookes, chair of Stirling children's committee, commented.

Mr Jeyes said it was astonishing that national targets from 5-14 test results, collated over the summer, "can be constructed on such a speedy, rough, ready and subjective basis" The strategy agreed by Stirling children's committee incorporates the HMI-led targets into a broader offensive to raise achievement in both primaries and secondaries, the approach already adopted by other councils notably North Lanarkshire. Starting in the most deprived areas, Stirling will develop the core skills, the processes of learning and the arts and sport.

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