Editorial: Walking a tightrope on valued-added statistics

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
The Government is having another go at making "value added" meaningful, this time in conjunction with the local authorities. A steering committee chaired by the head of the Inspectorate has been presented with the unenviable task of locating statistical reliability alongside common sense.The purpose is to help the Education Minister's action group on standards devise targets for schools which reflect the composition of their rolls and therefore allow judgments to be made on the teachers' contribution to pupil performance. The absence of reliable measures of added value has prevented ministers, Conservative as well as Labour, from addressing the annual problem that tables of exam results are derided as showing nothing more than the nature of the school. Brian Wilson wants schools grouped so that like is compared with like, but even that exercise depends on criteria of comparability.

In ironic coincidence the Scottish Parent Teacher Council has declared in favour of self-analysis: schools should determine their own targets. By putting together these estimates of achievable goals across the country a national target would emerge. The irony lies in the fact that the Government's efforts to set out benchmarks are intended to help parents. But the SPTC thinks that exercise is futile. The statistics are bound to remain flawed and the published data will still be disregarded by their target audience.

Self-examination, on the other hand, would be based on realistic assessment, and is already found in the self-evaluation which the Inspectorate asks of schools in considering how they are matching up to their own development plans.

The convener of the SPTC is a member of the standards action group but her scepticism is unlikely to sway the minister. Mr Wilson and his advisers believe that external influence is necessary. It is not just an expression of doubt about the standards schools might apply to themselves, though that may be an element. It is also a statement of political intent.The Government nailed its colours to the standards mast and now must show that it is doing something practical. So value added will be defined and pupils will be assessed as they enter primary school and on passing from primary to secondary. The setting of targets demands nothing less. Unless you delineate "baseline assessment" you can't measure what happens next.

For the SPTC the principle of setting standards is not an issue. But for others the big question remains: is the game worth the candle? An extensive apparatus is being put in place. Expensive too, no doubt. South of the border the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman pointed out that last year's national tests of seven-year-olds cost #163;36 a skull. Only #163;12.81 was spent on books for each child. Everyone agrees that performance in schools is unsatisfactory and any earlier complacency needs swept away. But teachers and pupils will not be persuaded to do better if they question the targets set. If these appear arbitrary (which is the SPTC's accusation) or cumbersomely expensive (as hard-up budget-holders might decide) they will not act as a stimulus.

Once the statisticians have had their say about value added, the Government might look to philosophers to recall the merits in Occam's razor as an approach to decision-making.

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