This head is appealing against them

8th May 1998 at 01:00
With only a month left to convert the provisional data into agreed targets there is still bitter disagreement about the fairness of the process. Neil Munro listened to contrasting views.

JOE Boyd, the newly appointed head of St David's High in Dalkeith, is appealing against two of his targets. - and does not have much faith in the rest of them either. He is more familiar with the targets than most, having worked for a seconded spell in the HMI audit unit .

Mr Boyd will tell Midlothian education authority and the audit unit that the maximum 10 per cent improvement in the numbers gaining Standard grades 1-2 and 1-4 over three years has never been achieved before. He says the targets for his school fail to match the Government's mantra of being "realistic but achievable".

But Mr Boyd is not even convinced that the 4 per cent minimum improvement set nationally for Standard grade is realistic.

"I believe very few schools have attained and sustained all seven minimum improvements over three years, never mind the maximum targets," he says. "So where is the evidence that all schools can achieve on that scale? And, even if individual targets are attainable, I doubt if it is going to be possible cumulatively to achieve them all."

St David's Standard grade 1-2 results over recent years highlight the problem - 24 per cent, 28 per cent, 20 per cent, 21 per cent and 23 per cent.

"They come nowhere near the target we've been set and we have certainly never achieved the maximum increase that is being asked of us," Mr Boyd comments. "They also show extreme volatility from year to year."

Mr Boyd does not speak as an ideological opponent of targets. "If they are not reasonable, they will fail. We could therefore end up putting in a lot of effort which will damage people's morale. I believe schools should be involved in setting targets and I would hate it if this failed. But if it does not work this time, there will be no way back."

Mr Boyd questions the decision to abandon the original composite measure for setting targets. This combined free meals with the proportion of local adults who had a higher education qualification. "Presumably the original was chosen because it was the most robust and had been pretested. Using free meal entitlement, a cruder measure, is a second or third choice. It may be a proxy indicator, but the targets are very precise. And schools have little leeway to vary them."

Mr Boyd believes this is bound to lead to conflicts between schools' own evaluations and the targets.

At St David's the school's judgement, using the HMI's own 'How Good Is Our School?' indicators, is that Higher grade attainment requires more attention than Standard grade. "But the targets tell us exactly the opposite implying the school is 'failing' at Standard grade," he says.

Mr Boyd suggests the school's assessment is superior. "Our value-added from Standard grade to Higher has been very good, which is why we've only been set the minimum targets at Higher. I believe that's down to good teaching. So why does the same teaching suddenly fail kids at Standard grade?" He rejects the HMI defence that every school should be capable of achieving at least as well as the best school with which it can be reasonably compared.

"This exercise is crucially weakened because it is based effectively on parental attitude to poverty and not on the ability of the pupil intake," Mr Boyd says.

St David's has a large number of level D pupils in first year -(level E is the expected performance by the end of S2). And two-thirds of the present second year are boys who, the statistics predict, will perform worse than girls. "How can I convert that situation into Standard grades 1-2?" Mr Boyd asks.

His assessment appeared to be confirmed by an HMI review of English teaching at the school. The review concluded that pupils entered with a lower standard than the national average, only a third being secure in level D.

But the inspectors also concluded that the teaching ranged from "very good to good".

Mr Boyd adds: "So parents, staff and pupils were told by HMI, the education authority and school management that this was a good school. But now suddenly, according to the targets, we are supposed to be under-performing."

He has been known to joke that the solution lies in persuading more parents to apply for free meals. "You've got to keep a sense of humour," he says.

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