Meals no measure;Letter

1st May 1998 at 01:00
Secondary schools have recently received their Scottish Office targets for examination performance using the sole criterion of percentage of pupils whose parents take up the entitlement to free school meals. On this basis, groups of schools with "similar characteristics" have been set up.

Although there are differences in the targets for schools within each group based on comparison of past examination performance, the method used for grouping schools is essentially invalid.

Some parents, though eligible, may not apply for school meals to which their children are entitled and the proportion of parents in this category will vary from school to school. Further weakening the school meals criterion is the fact that financial deprivation and educational deprivation in the home are not the same thing. The link between the two may be stronger in inner-city areas than in remote rural areas. Studies by Edinburgh University's Centre for Educational Sociology indicate that the school meals criterion, used alone, is too crude a measure to use for grouping schools for the purposes of target setting.

What is indeed emerging is that some schools in the same groupings have considerable differences in the academic and home support profiles of their intakes, and corresponding differences in standard grade results.

It is ludicrous, therefore, that high schools such as Mallaig and Farr (in Bettyhill, Sutherland) could well be in the same "schools of similar characteristics" groups as some schools from urban or semi-urban areas.

To group together such schools so different in other variables crucially related to examination success is a mistake in statistical inferencing of the most elementary kind.

There is no good evidence to suggest that differences in standard grades in schools in these groupings reflect real differences in the standards of quality of management and teaching. Setting targets in the way that is proposed is a worthless and meaningless exercise.

Michael C Davenport, 14 Bank Road East Linton EH40 3AH

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