The 'I must work harder' betrayal;Platform;Opinion

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
Our New Labour masters are setting unrealistic targets for raising school standards. David Nicholson writes

Target setting is, of course, a good thing. On that we are agreed. And yes, targets must be attainable if they are not simply to have a demoralising effect on the whole school community. The corollary is equally true: pupils, staff and parents will receive a boost when targets are overtaken. In principle the Government's initiative is to be welcomed. How regrettable it is that the voices of doubt - even of despair - are heard everywhere.

The Headteachers Association of Scotland has made public the concerns of those who will have ultimate responsibility for delivering targets through secondaries. It is to be hoped that the issues raised will receive proper consideration from ministers and officials because unless there is a measure of rethinking the entire strategy will be discredited.

As head of one of the Glasgow schools which will close in June I am reminded of the scene in Sliding Doors where the heroine stands on the Tube station platform watching the train draw away with herself on board. Where the target train may have taken Victoria Drive I will never know.

I can only watch and speculate and it leads me to conclude that the school would have failed to meet the targets. The failure would not have been one of teachers or pupils but of the inspectors whose approach to target setting is simplistic and insensitive.

There is an expectation that schools should be setting (or having set for them) highly-specific targets to be able to concentrate their energies on delivering a year-on-year improvement. That is a tall order and one which is not either realistic or attainable. A glance at the Scottish Office Audit Unit's examination results data for 1995-1997 shows, for example, that not one local authority school in either Edinburgh or Glasgow succeeded in a year-on-year improvement in each of the three Standard grade categories, 5+ awards at bands 1-2, 1-4 and 1-6. Well done Eastbank Academy in Glasgow which came closer to the ideal than anyone else.

No reassurance is to be obtained by more specific scrutiny of individual targets for the school. This is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the "increase sought" column which, as everyone has noticed, merely subtracts the starting performance from the provisional target. Thus what initially looks for us an already demanding increase of 10 points on our 5+ 1-4 awards is in truth a thoroughly demoralising demand for a 21.3 per cent increase in three years on current levels of attainment. And should it be rejoined that this merely highlights massive underperformance by pupils and staff to date I would point up the success of these same staff in delivering in the past four sessions a 13 per cent improvement in 5+ awards at 1-6 so that the school now stands 5 per cent above the city average.

If these teachers have failed to generate comparable gains at bands 1-4 and 1-2, might that not at least suggest that there is more to this business of raising standards across the board than the Scottish Office paper allows? New Labour may be in charge now but many old heads remember what happened to Boxer who tried to work harder for the new management in George Orwell's Animal Farm. This is especially apt considering the platitudinous comments recognising the efforts of most Scottish teachers.

At my own school most years our intake is under 100, reduced to that level by substantial numbers of placing requests from Primary 7 which are driven, as parents have admitted, by a desire to avoid contact with one sector of our population in an area of acute deprivation. Within the small intake wide variations occur from year to year: year group size - 81 in August, 1995 intake, 102 in August 1996 (almost 26 per cent variation); gender balance - 1.35 girls to each boy in S4 in 1995-96, 0.5 girls to each boy in S4 in 1996-97; free meals - 27 per cent of S4 on free meals in 1994, 53.5 per cent in the current session; attendance - less than 75 per cent attendance achieved by 6.9 per cent of S4 in 1996-97, but 22.4 per cent in 1994-95 and 20.9 per cent in current session where "closure" has been a factor since November.

How each of these items, varying in a seemingly haphazard way from session to session, interact proportionally one with another to influence our results I do not know but an influence they surely must have and given the small size of each intake the potential for significant percentage shifts year on year is clear enough. Nor is it safe to assume - as is implicit in imposing targets on this framework - that the mix would have continued over the next three or four sessions as it has combined in the past: our Standard grade School Characteristic Index of 43.3 looks somewhat inadequate in the face of this year's free meals figures: S1 64.7 per cent; S2 65.8 per cent; S3 55.7 per cent; S4 56.8 per cent.

The development plan is now a part of every school's culture. Staff have no difficulty in accepting it and developing a higher quality of education is integral to their work. In Glasgow there is no sector of the population more aware than its teachers of what is involved in raising pupils' aspirations, of offering them a quality experience in school against a background of budget cuts year on year.

We have the performance indicators by which our future performance will be judged. It is a reasonable expectation that if good practice is extended and performance judged against these Pls then the exam statistics will also improve. If they don't that will raise another set of interesting questions. But schools will not benefit from the kind of unreasonable demands inherent in the imposed targets which trumpet themselves as the toys of statisticians intent on the reduction of complex process to easily manipulated data.

David Nicholson is headteacher of Victoria Drive Secondary, Glasgow, which is due to close as part of Glasgow's reorganisation strategy.

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