Minister draws back from target tables

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
Last week's meeting of the Education Minister's action group on school standards stepped back from identifying the performance of every school against the new targets to be introduced next August. The issue is now to be thrashed out in a sub-committee of the group.

Brian Wilson, the Minister, said they had "an extremely open discussion" but added: "There are several demands to satisfy in determining how information is presented and I hope that the sub-group can synthesise them into an approach which is generally acceptable."

Meanwhile ammunition for critics of "league tables" has emerged from a research report into parental attitudes commissioned by the Scottish Office. It has confirmed the long-held assumption that parents have very little interest in information about schools in other parts of the country.

Mr Wilson is therefore likely to seize on these findings to move away from publishing 'raw' exam results in their current national format. Instead of a single document listing the results, exam figures will be disaggregated and published for each education authority in 32 separate booklets.

This would be in line with the demands from parents for local information and would not expose ministers to criticism, to which they are particularly sensitive, that information cannot be withdrawn once it is in the public domain. The Secretary of State believes that the answer to critics of published information is to make it more sophisticated not to censor it.

Ministers will, however, have to perform a delicate balancing act to bridge a clear gulf which is now opening up between the education authorities and the inspectorate on how to present new data on schools' performance in relation to their targets.

Douglas Osler, the head of the inspectorate, told the action group that not publishing is not an option since the Freedom of Information Act requires data to be made available if anyone asks for it. The issue was whether target-related performance should be published locally or nationally.

Mr Osler revealed last week that, prompted by a recent HMI report, he has already had to disclose to an MP details of how particular schools were performing although their identity was not revealed in the report. The inspectorate has also had a brush with the Ombudsman about failure to provide information.

But the authorities, led by Elizabeth Maginnis, their education spokesman, and John Travers, past president of the Association of Directors of Education, fear the school characteristics index, using the number of free meals to set targets for similar schools, is not sophisticated enough to be the basis for holding schools to account.

The councils want the information about schools' progress towards meeting their targets to be published for each authority but not for individual schools. They are particularly concerned that, since the targets are for all schools, published information on 5-14 progress would lead to primary league tables.

But Mr Osler has consistently argued that primary schools should be held to account for their performance in the same way as secondaries.

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