Scratch the surface and the gloss on school statistics is wearing a little thin, says Neil Munro
INFORMATION tables from HMI on school costs and leaver destinations, regarded by critics as the least informative of all, have been seized on by the Scottish Executive to demonstrate its policies are working.
The increase in the number of leavers going into higher education, from 29 per cent in 1996-97 to 31 per cent in 1998-99, shows the success of the drive to encourage pupils to move "from the classroom to the lecture theatre", the Executive states. Another 18 per cent have opted for full-time further education.
The details of schools spending, also published on Monday, show budgeted costs have risen to pound;1,939 per primary pupil and to pound;3,016 for each secondary pupil, totalling pound;1.8 billion in both sectors. This represents increases of around 5 per cent since last year - 8 per cent since 1997 - which "shows quite clearly that our extra investment in education is finding its way into the classrooms", Peter Peacock, Deputy Children and Education Minister, said.
Unions and others have dismissed the tables on leaver destinations as no more than a commentary on the state of local economies, the location of schools and the tradition or otherwise of schools sending pupils to university. The Executive's guide to interpreting the figures confirms the health warning.
"The destinations of a school's leavers may depend to some extent on its location. Economic factors may affect the availability of employment in the local area
. . . lack of employment may encourage leavers towards further education or training.
"A particular figure, for example the number of leavers proceeding to higher education, might derive mainly from the ability of pupils in a particular year group."
Senior officials acknowledge that the information on school costs can be even more problematic for parents in deducing what it means for individual schools.
Are schools with apparently high costs well-resourced or inefficient? The Executive's answer is: it depends.
Higher spending in island schools reflects the cost of provision spread across a larg number of small schools, for example, rather than high-spending councils. This allows Orkney to claim the highest primary cost per head at pound;14,217 for the six pupils at Flotta primary and the highest figure per secondary pupil of pound;15,940, at North Walls Secondary.
The cost tables do not cover schools with fewer than five pupils so they do not show the pound;26,000 expenditure on keeping the solitary youngster at Loch Choire primary in Sutherland - which will be closed next session when the pupil moves to secondary school and there is no intake.
The information also covers only "budgeted running costs", the delegated expenditure that appears in the financial statements provided annually to school boards by education authorities. The tables do not therefore represent full school costs, such as spending on buildings or on central services provided by advisers and psychologists.
This is one of the factors which appears to make primary schools in Scottish Borders the second cheapest, at pound;1,615 per pupil, despite the fact schools in rural authorities normally cost more to run. The council's curriculum support for primary teachers, which is delivered by peripatetic specialists, and learning support for primary pupils, amounting to pound;1 million, are not reflected in the figure.
"The data is not comparable across the country and it is time for a review," John Taylor, Borders assistant director of education, commented.
The major factor, however, is school size, reflected in the fact that East Renfrewshire's large schools have the lowest running costs - pound;1,579 per pupil in primary and pound;2,669 in secondary.
The report on costs hints at official preference for primary schools of 300-plus pupils, giving running costs from pound;1,500-pound;2,200, while secondary schools with rolls above 800 could reduce their costs to pound;2,600-pound;3,200 per pupil. The report points out that a secondary school with a roll of 300 might cost around 50 per cent more per pupil than one with 800 pupils.
More than half of Scotland's 2,291 primaries have a roll of 200 or fewer while almost half of the 392 secondaries have fewer than 800 pupils.
Leader, page 16