The Scottish Office has abandoned its efforts to set national targets for primary schools and early secondary because it cannot get reliable information on existing pupil performance. The move was welcomed by parent representatives and local authority and union leaders.
HMI's audit unit carried out a survey of schools during the summer to collect attainment data, but concluded that "it would not be appropriate to generate provisional targets" in the same way as for secondaries.
The Education Minister's action group on standards, which met in Glasgow on Monday, heard that a third of schools could not provide useable information on attainment and there was little confidence in results that did exist because of varying approaches by teachers to national testing.
The Inspectorate told the action group: "5-14 testing is not externally moderated and was not developed for, or is widely used by teachers for, the purpose of assessing performance of a school."
The controversial approach to secondary target-setting took into account each school's social circumstances using entitlement to free meals. While this provided "strong and consistent correlation with performance", HMI said the links in primary schools are less reliable and the range of attainment in schools with similar characteristics is wider.
The action group, which was chaired for the first time by Helen Liddell, agreed that schools and education authorities should draw up their own targets, although they will be expected to conform to a national framework.
Local "ownership", as opposed to centrally determined targets, proved a sticking point for schools and authorities during the controversies over Standard grade and Higher performance.
Elizabeth Maginnis, the education authorities' leader and a member of the action group, welcomed what she saw as "a more consensual approach to the primary sector in circumstances where we are not proceeding by legislation".
But Mrs Maginnis said there were important implications, not least that the audit of 5-14 attainment could not come up with reliable data. "This issue of the validity of 5-14 assessment and national testing, including standardising teachers' use of the tests, is a significant one for the future," she said.
Alison Kirby, convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and another action group member, also welcomed the greater flexibility. "What matters is the target-setting process, not the targets themselves - in other words, the business of schools analysing their performance and deciding on what improvements are necessary."
Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland,welcomed "the recognition that centrally prescribed tablets of stone are not appropriate" and said the greater the extent to which schools are allowed to set their own targets, taking account of their own circumstances, the better. "There is more likely to be commitment to the targets if the school devises them. Otherwise it becomes a sterile exercise," Mr Smith said.
John Travers, past president of the Association of Directors of Education and another action group member, described the decision as "a sensible and pragmatic approach to the setting of 5-14 targets given the question marks hanging over the use of national test results for this purpose".
But Mr Travers, the director in North Ayrshire, called for Government investment to make test results more reliable, including the introduction of a validation and moderation system. Primary teachers should also be allowed time for staff development to achieve greater consistency.
Despite the absence of national provisional targets, schools will, however, be expected to aim for national benchmarks.
The action group agreed that an average of 80 per cent of primary pupils should be expected to achieve the four 5-14 levels A-D in reading, writing and maths; 75 per cent will be the target for level E achievement in the three Rs by the end of the second year of secondary school.
Schools would be expected to halve the gap between where they are at present and the national standards by 2001. A primary currently performing at 60 per cent would have a target of 70 per cent.
But schools for which 80 per cent would be a leap too far will be allowed to aim for the best performances of schools with a similar free meal entitlement, using data which will be provided by the HMI audit unit.
Special arrangements will also be permitted for primaries with fewer than 70 pupils.