Gradual slope up to higher passes
Bill Coyle, East Renfrewshire Council's school management officer, has a mission. The authority's target of five or more Standard grade 1-4 passes is already set at 88 per cent, 11 per cent above the national average. Now it is piloting a scheme whereby 5-14 targets are derived from targets set for Standard grade Credit and General passes. Standardised testing of pupils as early as Primary 3 is one way of raising attainment.
"If you are expected to be twice the national average in S4 you have to be the same in S2 and in primary school," says Mr Coyle. "That means the learning gradient should be turned up in primary, so that it's a case of a smoother gradient leading up to Standard grades and Higher Still, rather than a shallow rise and a sudden leap, especially for Highers."
Maintaining the differential means 90 per cent of primary pupils achieving their 5-14 levels in reading, writing and mathematics, which is 10 per cent above national targets.
"It's unfair to set easy targets and, given our track record to date, we should be able to make a better contribution to national targets than, for example, an area like Glasgow with an average clothing grant of around 50 per cent," says Mr Coyle.
This is not to say that East Renfrewshire does not have pockets of deprivation, as John Wilson, the head of services, point outs.
"While we are going for a 90 per cent average for primary schools, with some individual school targets being as high as 97 per cent, there are schools like Carlibar primary (linked to Barrhead High School) where there is a clothing grant of 86 per cent and their target has been set at 70 per cent.
"That said, it is my firm belief that good practice - no matter where you are - will always produce results."
One example of this, says Mr Coyle, is St John's Primary in Barrhead which, despite being in an area of deprivation (clothing grant of 39 per cent), is achieving above both the national and the local authority set targets.
"You have to compare like with like. It's well ahead of similar schools. Why? Because it is a well-managed school, which shows good leadership and a hardworking staff.
"The benefit of our standardised tests is that we can indentify best practice like this and spread it, bearing in mind that it is unfair if deprived schools are not benchmarked against similar schools.
"Using S4 attainment to set targets at earlier stages, we have a system of standardised testing which is used for P3, P5, P7 and S2, each key stage of 5-14. We give a test in reading, spelling, maths and this year for the first time in writng."
The primary tests are given in February, the S2 tests at Easter to prepare the pupils for transfer into S3 Standard grade course work. The authority has been testing at P5 for three years and for two years at the other stages.
"It provides good management information for benchmarking and assessing teaching and learning because you get an individual profile of each pupil," says Mr Coyle. "It provides robust information for senior management, for class teachers, parents and pupils."
He continues: "For the primary tests we use both commercial, national tests and our own standardised tests developed in liaison with Edinburgh University and in close consultation with head and class teachers.
"Ideally, it would be best to have off-the-shelf national benchmark tests and I think they'll come eventually. We would like to benchmark outwith as well as across our authority. It's targets that drive up attainment," he says.
The standardised tests are processed and marked centrally by volunteer (paid) teachers. They are delivered by senior school management rather than the class teacher ("to make the testing more independent"), but in an informal way to get a better measure of potential. It is, says Mr Coyle, better that the youngsters don't know they are being tested.
Mr Wilson says: "We think our system is more objective and provides evidence which you maybe don't get if each school is selecting its own tests from a bank where the teacher can choose within a range of easier or more difficult tests depending on what level they think the class is at. We test the pupils' potential and not the teachers' expectations.
"Our figures are more accurate than Government ones, because they're more objective and the information you can extrapolate is more accurate.
"We'll always be 10 points above the national figure, but we don't choose the national figure. It's flawed. It's pulled out of a hat, whereas we believe in our authority figure. We have a justifiable framework to set our targets.
"In any case, it is authorities who should be set targets by the Government and not individual schools directly," he says.
Mr Coyle says there is now "a greater focus on core skills" because of this system of standardised testing. "The primary schools and primary specialists are now looking more closely at course content and how we deliver in the classroom within the 5-14 guidelines, and the national concern with writing has led us to introduce writing tests this year."
"We've had a very positive response from senior management, from teachers and from parents," says Mr Wilson. "Parents wanted sharper information on their children's progress in key basic skills and now we are enabling the schools to provide this."