Over the top on targets;Letter

12th March 1999 at 00:00
I WRITE with reference to the outburst by Douglas Osler ("Schools get a rocket for ducking targets", TESS, March 5). On this occasion Mr Osler is well over the top.

The Government's target-setting exercise has always been deeply into ambiguity. Thus, the original document (March 1998) refers repeatedly to schools setting targets. The benchmark data and the provisional targets supplied by the Audit Unit of the Inspectorate are "for schools and education authorities to consider".

However, this devolved approach to target-setting is not consistently maintained even to the end of that initial document. Thus, the paper goes on to talk about schools, with the agreement of their education authorities, reducing their targets by 1 per cent and about other schools making unspecified reductions in their targets because of "exceptional circumstances". In the context of a devolved exercise, such stipulations are irrelevant.

In the intervening 12 months, the centralist, as opposed to the devolved, message has become consistently stronger. The April 1998 paper, Advice for Education Authorities, is mainly concerned with limiting the scope for departure from the provisional targets. For example, the 1 per cent flexibility is not to be used to reduce a target below the "minimum for that measure". These minima, based on the average level of improvement across all schools in Scotland over a three-year period, were of course calculated by the Inspectorate.

The same paper sought to restrict to 1 per cent any downward adjustment in respect of a school's having a larger than average number of pupils with special needs. There is also an attempt in the paper to define "special circumstances".

Newsletter 2 (June 1998) indicated that HMI would monitor the setting-targets initiative as part of their inspection programme. This innocent-sounding statement should have set alarm bells ringing. Now we have the final confirmation that this is a centralist exercise, one of a number of exercises which are increasing the power of the Inspectorate.

Education authorities are divided into three categories. First, there are those who regarded the provisional targets as more or less tablets of stone. These are characterised as the "showing practice" category.

A further 13 are in a "could do better" category; they allowed some "unacceptable exceptions". Finally, there are six authorities who are consigned to the doghouse for setting targets "based on invalid circumstances". Some of the statements made by authorities and schools are regarded by Mr Osler as "unacceptable and frankly absurd".

The abandonment by the Inspectorate of the devolved model is confirmed by the statements that "HMI will henceforth pronounce on the appropriateness of targets when inspectors report on schools". In other words, schools which made use of the studied ambiguity in the policy to set their own targets will be "named and shamed".

When we recall that certain key targets were based on free meal entitlement, the applicability of which has been seriously challenged in academic research commissioned by the Educational Institute of Scotland, I think we can well understand why Helen Liddell seems to be distancing herself from the doubtful exercise.

Fred Forrester Depute general secretary Educational Institute of Scotland

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