Heads slam 'invalid' targets

27th November 1998 at 00:00
Secondary heads have leapt to the defence of the profession by condemning Government plans to publish data on "invalid" exam targets. But they were warned that standardised national testing in the first two years of secondary is inevitable.

Derek McGinn, retiring president of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said that publication of comparative information on schools' progress in meeting targets was completely at odds with positive aspects of raising achievement.

"It smacks of the naming and shaming approach to improving achievement and as an association we should have nothing to do with it. It is, of course, an international game of comparisons which is driving this approach.

"It's a game based on a set of values which have more to do with industrial production and accountancy founded on a belief in perpetual economic growth as a good thing than upon educational criteria," Mr McGinn said.

Mr McGinn, head of Culloden Academy, described current thinking on measuring school performance as "naive and superficial" and said it failed to recognise complex processes.

The HAS has now stiffened its opposition to target-setting and any new league tables of performance. Dr Nigel Lawrie, head of Port Glasgow High, and incoming president, said: "We do not know how valid they will be and we have severe reservations about how they were calculated. Publication will allow invidious comparison between schools and we are opposed to something that is not tried and tested."

The association favoured target-setting if it was based on consensus through schools. But children's entitlement to free school meals (FME) was a flawed means of grouping schools.

Professor John Macbeath, head of the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University and a member of the Scottish Office targets' group, admitted the free meal indicator was a temporary measure until something more reliable emerged. Civil servants had wanted to base targets on levels of parental education but were told that was too difficult.

"The reason we rely on FME is that we do not have any kind of systematic,robust, rigorous measure of achievement across 5-14. It is now inevitable that will have to happen at national level," Professor Macbeath said.

George Haggarty, head of St John's High, Dundee, said 5-14 targets and statistics were "not standardised, not moderated and not about any trends over time". They gave a false impression of pupils and a shallow understanding of their abilities. Levels were "disparate" across the country and were never designed to be the basis for target-setting.

Professor Macbeath believed that Scotland "may have missed a trick" by not establishing standardised testing in primary and early secondary.

"It would be absolutely futile to try to oppose that because I think now a lot of people think we need a much more rigorous national system of assessment. But let's be careful not to go down the road of the SATs (standardised tests) in England which teachers say do not reflect the quality of children's learning, " he said.

* Professor Macbeath revealed that Singapore, which has led world tables for exam performance, has slashed curriculum content by a third after universities complained that students were inadequately prepared. There will be more time for individual learning and 100 hours extra for teachers' reflection and personal development.

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