How mean can an average be?

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Iain Duncan gives a head's perspective on the relationship between postcodes and exam tables.

It was interesting as headteacher of Bannerman High School to read of the greatly improved league table performances of St Mungo's Academy and John Bosco Secondary, both near neighbours of Bannerman in the east end of Glasgow. Bannerman has also made steady improvements in performance over the past five years. Sometimes the change has been spectacular: 7 per cent of fifth year pupils gaining five or more Higher grades, which is above the national average and more than three times last year's value. Twenty pupils in S5 gained five Highers.

As at John Bosco and the "Mungo", many initiatives have been started to raise standards of attainment: an annual awards ceremony, a system of praising pupils for good work, supported study classes, study skills courses, intensive study guides, individual tutoring sessions during prelims and SCE diet, annual meetings with principal teachers.

Meetings with parents and pupils emphasise some of the contributory factors in gaining good SCE results. Many of the parents are first timers as far as this is concerned. Most have never experienced FE or HE and are not aware that pupils cannot gain top awards if they work three nights a week in the local supermarket; take foreign holidays during term time - two weeks out of the 30-week dash to Higher; do not study for three to four hours a night and at weekends; and are poor attenders.

The city's norm for Standard grade (1-4) shows Bannerman to be an average performing comprehensive school. Using other indicators it can either be above or below the national figures, but not deviating much from this. Last session Bannerman had a roll of approximately 1,400 drawn mainly from four postcodes.

G** and G*** are in two of the city's most deprived estates. Some of these pupils reside within the school's designated catchment area while some come by placing request. The requests are historically from two areas where gang boundaries preclude attendance at the local school.

The fourth year for this particular session also had a distinct group of 38 pupils who did not start off their secondary careers in Bannerman. They came by placing request (some genuine, some "shotgun"), movement into the catchment area or compulsory exclusion from other establishments. Twenty-six came from local schools. Bannerman's catchment area is wide and pupils from within it also attend up to six denominational schools sited in three authorities.

It is enlightening to track the performances of pupils from G** and G*** - 25 per cent of the roll and 46 per cent of the referrals to the children's panel: G* 15 (21 per cent) of referrals; G** 18 (25 per cent); G*** 18 (25 per cent); G**** 22 (30 per cent). The attendance figures for the same session are G* 87 per cent; G** 80 per cent; G*** 77 per cent; G**** 88 per cent. When the "truancy" tables are published will the parents of the G* and G**** pupils (75 per cent) realise why the school's performance is so low? The average attendance of the 38 enrolments (3 per cent of the S4 roll) was under 60 per cent.

This 60 per cent is rather inflated by a few "genuine" enrolments who have attended for 90 per cent of the time and also by the high attendance of several others who attend centres run by the social work department. Unfortunately the latter group's only contribution to performance in the tables is towards the August roll and the number of no awards and the number who do not turn up for any of the Standard grade examinations.

As HMCI Douglas Osler warned: "You have to be certain of the pupil intake and have sophisticated ways of measuring it. You cannot just rely on postcodes. "

Iain Duncan is headteacher of Bannerman High School.

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