Searchlight on successes

28th November 1997 at 00:00
St Ninian's High in affluent East Renfrewshire has taken examination analysis to its ultimate. Not only does the school scrutinise its own and its departments' performances, but it casts a searching light on teachers' success with their Standard grade and Higher classes.

"This is not terrorism, " stresses Jim McVittie, the headteacher. "It's about professionalism and accountability. We need to photograph the school from every angle, and it's important to know how well or badly subject teachers are doing by their pupils so we can build up a picture of achievement for the whole child."

The school is in its third year of applying "relative ratings" to teachers, showing the average grade achieved by their pupils at Standard grade and Higher over a three-year period, compared with the same pupils' average grades in their other subjects. The teachers do the calculations themselves with the help of a disk supplied by the school. "The emphasis is on self-evaluation and development," Mr McVittie says.

He sends little billets-doux to each of his departments, doling out praise and concern as required. This SCE subject analysis is not unusual, but Mr McVittie takes it further. "I am perturbed by the negative rating scored by Mr X's Standard grade class," he wrote last year to his head of English. "It does seem somewhat on the high side. I suggest that you draw my concerns to his attention, offering support and any relevant in-service opportunities.

"It would be premature to go beyond this at this stage, but I shall watch with interest the relative ratings for Mr X's current fourth-year class."

On the other hand, the English department did well last year in both Standard grade and Higher, although there was disappointment at the doubling of no awards in the Higher exam. Nonetheless Mr McVittie accentuate d the positive, singling out in particular the "most encouraging" relative ratings for one teacher's S4 class.

He acknowledges, too, that poor results might not all be down to poor teachers. "It may be that the range of ability is far too much for a particular teacher to cope with and that then becomes an issue for management to deal with."

St Ninian's degree of precision is a key part of East Renfrewshire's approach. It has to be, for the authority is in the classic position of being tempted to rest on its laurels. The council once again topped the table for raw results at both Standard grade and Higher, six and three points respectively ahead of its nearest rivals. Standard grade Credit results in the 1997 exam were 142 per cent of national performance in the five core areas of English, maths, modern languages, social subjects and science. Higher passes were 152 per cent.

The council has now agreed new targets for Standard grade Credit awards and Higher passes of 150 per cent and 160 per cent respectively. "We know we are doing well," John Wilson, head of East Renfrewshire's head of education quality, says. "The question is: are we doing well enough?"

Not content with the broad-band results of "Standard grade 1-2", officials are now beginning to home in on the top Standard grade 1 (Credit level) and have discovered that performance is not good enough.

"This is very important because, of course, a Credit 1 at Standard grade is a predictor of success at Higher grade," says Mr Wilson.

The authority is now able to pinpoint particular weaknesses when subject results in each of its seven secondaries are compared, not only with other departments in the same school, but with those in the 10 nearest similarly performing schools from other areas of Scotland who are co-operating with East Renfrewshire (five schools who do better and five who do worse).

The analysis of Standard grade Credit 1 results shows that St Ninian's and Eastwood high schools are under-performing at this level in maths, Mearns Castle High in English, and Williamwood and Woodfarm high schools in modern languages. Barrhead High will be expected to improve its overall Credit performance at both Standard grade levels 1 and 2, while low presentations in Standard grade science at St Luke's High will also be tackled.

Principal teachers with low ratings are encouraged to contact their opposite numbers in high-performing departments from the 10 schools in their group to see what lessons can be learned. "It's a kind of informal in-service and a more cost-effective replacement for the army of advisers we used to have, " Mr Wilson says.

But East Renfrewshire is determined not to leave schools to their own devices. "Our scrutiny shows which cylinders in a school are not firing and we try to help them do something about it,"

Bob Tennent, East Renfrewshire's quality development officer, says. So it sets targets for the authority as a whole in both Standard grade and Higher and, within these, for Standard grade 1 and Higher A results.

Schools agree precise targets with the authority. St Ninian's High, for example, will be expected to show improvements in maths at Standard grade Credit level 1 over a couple of sessions.

This means the school will have to move from a Credit performance of 157 in Standard grade maths (100 being the national index) to 165 - the norm for the school if Standard grade 1 maths results had been excluded from the calculation.

The authority suspects that the problem at St Ninian's is that Standard grade maths is not rigorous enough and has bought course textbooks to test this out. Mr Tennent accepts there could be resource problems preventing schools achieving their potential, which the authority has to do something about. Last year, for example, it was persuaded that under-achievement in information technology was due to under-provision, so it spent #163;550,000 on computer rooms and equipment. That decision was made easier by the availability of hard, objective evidence from the SCE analysis, Mr Tennent states.

Schools are given one "official" target for both Standard grade and Higher, although that does not prevent them tackling other problem areas. "If we set more targets or make them too vague," Mr Wilson says, "it will take longer and you will not see the results quickly enough. We believe it is important not to set targets for the school but individual targets for subjects which are absolutely precise."

He believes that failing to back up schools' own efforts or spelling out what schools must do to reach their targets could be a major weakness in the Government's target-setting agenda.

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