This head is happy with his targets...

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.

Mike McCabe in South Ayrshire is one director of education who is determined to accentuate the positive and run with the Government's secondary targets - and at least two of his heads seem to agree with him.

"We know there is concern in schools, and indeed in authorities," Mr McCabe says. "Change can be frightening, but it is also exciting and necessary.

"The fears are understandable, but I believe they are also overstated. I am particularly concerned that public and parents don't come to believe schools are not interested in asking the question : How are we doing? If we stop asking the questions, there are questions to be asked."

George Bone, the head of Marr College in Troon, says he is "reasonably happy" with his provisional targets. In his case the maximum improvement over the next three years is an increase from 80 to 86 per cent in the proportion of fourth year pupils achieving Standard grades 1-4.

He is more concerned at the value-added increase required for Higher performance. There the targets are derived from the previous year's Standard grade attainment and the school's characteristics based on the number of free meals. Marr is expected to add four per cent to the number of three or more Higher passes over the next three years.

Mr Bone asks: "What about the departments who are working their socks off and are already high performers?"

He believes a four per cent increase across the board is unfair. A number of his departments have never before achieved four per cent. He expects a hard sell convincing his staff - "but that's what I'm there for."

Roy Birnie, the head of Girvan Academy, agrees that "there won't be undiluted joy among the staff." He wants particular reassurance about the effects of his special needs provision on the leeway he will get in meeting his targets - 3.2 per cent of his pupils have a record of needs compared with 1.5 per cent in South Ayrshire and 1.4 per cent nationally.

But Mr Birnie foresees few problems, even though one of his targets is a near-maximum nine per cent improvement in the number of Standard grade 1-4 awards over three years.

"It is the next logical step from school development planning and self-evaluation," he says. "All departments already know each other's results". Even now there is "no place to hide," Mr Bone adds.

He dismisses the preoccupation with the statistical basis for targets as a "sideshow". Particular criticism has centred on grouping each school along with the 20 most similar according to the number of free meals.

This proxy measure of poverty is now the only indicator left. The original attempt to use the number of adults with university qualifications living in the area was withdrawn as an unsound yardstick for measuring parental advantage.

Mr McCabe said he would be "hard pressed" to find a better general indicator of a school's characteristics than free meals. "What matters is the practice, and the only way to find out whether there is any substance to the criticisms is to take the targets forward. We don't want to put all our energies into discussing percentage adjustments, but into what the schools and the authority can do to make an impact on what's happening in the classroom."

Bill Clark, South Ayrshire's educational services co-ordinator, acknowledges the concerns, particularly the fall-off in the number of free meals from primary into secondary. "There may have to be adjustments," he says. "But the free meal entitlement is simply a starting point. " Alastair Noble, head of educational quality, stresses that "it has been a major gain for us that a school's socio-economic circumstances are being taken into account. We have spent years demanding this, so to subvert the debate by concentrating on statistics would be really counter productive."

Elaine Murray, South Ayrshire's education convener, is determined the council will use the targets to concentrate on under-achievers. "It would be easy for an authority like ours to be complacent because our schools do better than the national average." Some 37 per cent of the 1997 fourth year gained five or more Standard grades 1-2, for example, compared with the Scottish figure of 30 per cent.

Mr McCabe says: "What matters is the performance, not the targets. We don't want to get into a situation which makes people concerned, tentative and cautious.

"I will feel a school is a success if it sets an ambitious target and achieves an improvement, even if it falls short of the target. I would be more concerned if a school set a cautious target and achieved it. To aim low and succeed is not good enough.

"We're not going to beat schools about the head if they set ambitious targets. But we will give them a hard time if they set soft targets."

Mr Bone stresses the minimum and average nature of the targets, while Mr Birnie says people are under the false impression they are to be achieved within a year rather than over three years.

Ms Murray rejects the threat from the Headteachers' Association of Scotland (TESS last week) that some heads might refuse to implement targets.

"I believe schools would put themselves at a severe disadvantage with parents and the public if they take that course of action," she says. "There is a danger headteachers and their schools would simply be seen to be rationalising poor performance."

Mr McCabe adds: "The council will have to celebrate good practice but also challenge jaded practice. Because one thing is for sure - if we know practice is jaded, parents and pupils will know it too. It's a tricky agenda, but an important and necessary one."

South Ayrshire intends to take a raft of measures to secure improvements, the education director pledges. It will extend supported study, consider the use of the Internet and deploy skilled teachers to inject vigour into "jaded" departments.

If departments are failing, it should not be seen as a localised problem, Mr McCabe says. "The school and the authority must take wider responsibility for that state of affairs. Since subject department and school performance contribute towards each authority's targets, we have to recognise we are all in it together."

Mr Bone said "this will force us to ask questions about the performance of departments and individuals - a debate we should have had ten years ago."

Mr Clark stressed, however, that it was not a matter of hanging individuals out to dry as part of an appraisal mechanism. Mr McCabe acknowledged that "We will have to guard against schools feeling they are disadvantaged if they are not doing so well as 'the competition,' or worrying that their performance is never going to improve on the average."

Mr Noble suggests the discussions around the targets between each authority and its schools will make a major contribution to identifying staff development needs. "Authorities have been accused of cutting their in-service budgets, while setting new targets for schools at the same time.

"I believe the target-setting approach will help us establish common training needs, such as weaknesses in aspects of maths or unfamiliarity with requirements in science, which we can meet from our in-service budget. But we cannot skew our budget just for one initiative."

Elaine Murray says the target-setting agenda has more far reaching implications. "This could be a real test for locally provided education. If schools and local authorities don't sign up for the standards agenda, education could end up as the direct responsibility of the Scottish parliament."

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