New tables 'shaming' fear
Parents across Scotland are about to be deluged by another set of performance figures on schools. The recent meeting of the Education Minister's action group on standards put the finishing touches to the framework for reporting secondary schools' progress towards meeting their targets.
The controversial move, which is seen as encouraging a demotivating "naming and shaming" approach, has been condemned by parent and headteacher leaders and only tentatively endorsed by the local authorities.
Ministers have bowed to pressure against any national publication which would identify the performance of individual schools against their targets. But all education authorities will have to show how each of their secondary schools is performing against the seven targets for Standard grade and Higher attainment.
A three-pronged approach will require every authority to publish the information by December 15 each year, or as soon afterwards as possible. Schools must also provide the data in their annual handbooks for parents. The Scottish Office will collate the information but will only publish the results nationally for each authority not each school.
This compromise is aimed at satisfying twin ministerial aims. A draft circular to directors of education, which was approved by the action group on standards, notes that "ministers wish the fullest information about the performance of schools and the factors affecting this to be publicly available".
But it acknowledges that they have to "minimise the risk that inappropriate judgments are made about schools in general or in particular, or that a category of schools is unfairly stigmatised as failing - an outcome Ministers consider unlikely to be helpful in general or to schools facing significant levels of challenge."
Elizabeth Maginnis, leader of the education authorities, said the latest approach "avoids the publication of meaningless national league tables". But she added: "I only hope that publication of information on targets by authorities on the same day will not lead some newspapers to compile national league tables as a result."
Alison Kirby, convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, is a trenchant critic of the entire system although she supports the issuing of data by schools to its own parents. "I'm against publishing information which simply will not stand up to the pressure of publication. Publication implies that schools should be held to account by targets that are simply not robust or reliable enough."
The Government's plans also drew criticism from George Ross, the new secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland. He said his members would be opposed to "anything which reinforces league tables and sets up invidious comparisons between schools".
Target-setting, he added, was only one of a number of strategies used by schools to raise achievement and should not be over-played.
The draft circular acknowledges that judgments may be misleading if they are formed from year-on-year performance by schools which will vary. Schools will therefore be expected to use three-year averages for reporting on both their performance and their targets.
"What is critical is the school's ability to make consistent and sustained progress over a number of years," the circular will say.
The school and its authority will decide whether it is making good progress or not, the circular continues but adds: "It is also for them to assure themselves and parents that, where there is concern over the level of progress, they have in hand relevant and appropriate action to address it."
The December date for publishing this additional performance data will coincide with the appearance of the national tables on exam results, which already command acres of newsprint and which will continue in broadly the same format.
While no decisions have been taken on publishing 5-14 data, the approach to reporting on targets for secondary schools will inevitably raise the spectre of "league tables" for primary schools - something which even Michael Forsyth did not countenance as a Conservative minister.