Colin Finlayson, headteacher at James Gillespie's High School in Edinburgh, has returned from a year's secondment to Edinburgh council, where he worked with a senior official, Ian Glen, on devising software to track an individual pupil's progress. The Individual Target Setting (ITS) program was piloted last year and is not yet widely available. "The idea," says Mr Finlayson, "still needs to be sold to teachers, many of whom still fear they will be held to account for the targets.
"The focus of our work was that target setting would not raise attainment in itself - the national process would not - so the city wanted to provide support for schools to develop strategies and one of the focuses should be clearer attainment targets for individuals."
Mr Finlayson's school has been working with fifth-year pupils, but next month the system will be introduced at fourth year, when pupils receive their Standard grade preliminary results. "Eventually we will have a culture where setting targets in some form happens all the way through the school.
"As soon as the prelim results are out, we will put the data into the software so we can predict how those youngsters might do at Higher. The second stage will be the fourth years' reports in January, doing some work with them to motivate them: 'Here's what the projection says about you with the prelim results you've got at this stage.' " The Edinburgh approach aims to raise the young person's motivation, using "grade point averages" from exams. The software holds records for individual pupils, records achievement and predicts on the basis of a pupil's Standard grade results what an average pupil with those results could expect to obtain at Higher. Some of the predictions can come as a shock to the child. For example, according to the ITS program, if an average pupil gets four Standard grades at level 1 and three at level 2, he or she is likely to get seven Highers at B; if a youngster gets five Standard grades at level 3 and two at level 2, he or she is not likely to get any Highers at all.
Mr Finlayson says that being upfront and giving pupils the hard information can be "a motivating factor if used sensitively". The pupil who got five Standard grades at 3 and two at 2, could be asked, "What do you want? Are Highers the appropriate target? Would Intermediate 2 be a better option for fifth year, with Highers in sixth year?" A lot of children, he says, would be able to turn that into four or five Highers.
A key factor for schools is to work with teachers to ensure they discuss the software results with each pupil in an encouraging way and motivate the pupil to do well. Another factor, according to Mr Finlayson, is "the serious amount of decision making by the youngster, that this is his target".
Gillespie's has about 170 youngsters in S5 and target setting is carried out by three guidance teachers at the beginning of the academic year. It takes about one hour and is not a big process, says Mr Finlayson.
Pupils are also given the opportunity to change their targets through the year, so if someone is doing really well, it is suggested that he or she might want to go for an A.
"The long-term intention is to create a pupil record to track progress from first year to sixth year. But there are a lot of difficult questions to answer. The easy part's been done, because we have national statistics for Standard grade and Higher that provide a reliable tool.
"At 5-14 the actual projecting forward has to be based more on teacher assessment, though Ian Glen has carried out NFER group reading tests for every child in first year, to standardise results.
"The problem for national assessment," says Mr Finlayson, "is major, because none of the different stages equate to each other. There is no clear identification of what level E means in terms of Standard grade.
"The national line is that 75 per cent of all children are expected to reach level E in Scotland by the end of S2, so that means my child is exactly the same as 75 per cent of children in Scotland. It doesn't tell the parent a lot.
"Target setting from S1 to S4 will be a long slow process to build up experience until we can get more reliable information. But eventually we will have a culture where setting targets in some form happens all the way through."