Neil Munro on the launch of an Internet resullts service that avoids easy comparisons of individual school performance
The new-style appearance of school exam results produced a rare outbreak of parental and political consensus this week.
Unveiled by Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, on a visit to the Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh, the results will be accessed through clicking on individual school names on the special website for parents, www.parentzonescotland.gov.uk
This is designed to make school-by-school comparisons as difficult as possible, in addition to shifting the emphasis purely from pupil attainment and putting the school into its social context by publishing free school meal information for the first time. The number of youngsters going on to further and higher education or employment is also issued alongside the exam data, for the first time.
Mr Peacock said: "Parents face a bewildering array of information when trying to assess how well their school is performing. To date, we have not been active enough in getting the key information into one place to help parents. Today we put that right."
The website also includes links to school inspection reports, although that is inevitably incomplete, and to school websites where they exist.
Ministers believe they have done enough to avoid falling foul of new freedom of information legislation, which requires data to be as accessible as possible.
The Executive made a deliberate decision to place the exam data on the parent website to signify that it is intended to be aimed principally at parents. Although each year will carry a snapshot of only one year's performance, parents will be able to see how well or otherwise their school and others are improving over a three-year period.
Judith Gillespie, of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, welcomed the drawing together of information on a school-by-school level. "This detaches information from the national scene to the individual school, where it is of most value," she added.
Mrs Gillespie hoped the website would be expanded with more useful information that is of immediate concern to parents, such as the number of specialist teachers a primary school has or the number of languages that are taught in a secondary.
Alan Smith, president of the Scottish School Board Association, said the new initiative was "a good starting point in getting rid of league tables".
But, he added, "it goes nowhere near describing the ethos or atmosphere of the school."
The Educational Institute of Scotland said the new approach was very welcome but it, too, wanted to see "a better reflection of the socio-economic realities of the school and of the circumstances in which teachers have to work".
Fiona Hyslop, the SNP's education spokesperson, said she was "pleased" at the appearance of an alternative to league tables. Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the Tories' education spokesman, said he was "pleased" that the Executive had decided not to end the publication of schools qualifications data.
The major concern, raised by Alex Wood, the head of Wester Hailes Education Centre, where Mr Peacock launched the website, was that many parents did not have Internet access and therefore could not find the information.
The Executive has attempted to head off that criticism with a new helpline for parents without web access to call if they want paper copies of information (0870 3332870). Those who need to know where the nearest public Internet access point is will also be able to call a special number (0800 771 234).
A spokesman for the Executive said this week's initiative was only a start.
The website has provision for feedback and this will be used to develop the site, he said.
"We hope that putting out as much information as possible on a national level will encourage schools to present as much information as possible to parents and to think about how they involve parents," the spokesman said.
The Executive also hopes the latest initiative will stimulate schools to develop or improve their own websites.
The figures released on individual schools allow direct comparisons to be made for the first time between exam results and the "poverty index" of a school's free meal entitlement. This helps highlight the positive performance of schools such as Hillpark Secondary in Glasgow which has more than a third of its pupils on free meals, the same as the city average, but is second only to Hyndland Secondary in the number of pupils from the authority's schools who succeed in passing three or more Highers.
National and education authority data have already been published in the traditional way, but without the school-level information unveiled this week.