The Government's "school characteristics index", the key to its attempt to set targets for schools, had one leg kicked from under it this week. The Education Minister's action group on standards agreed on Monday to ditch the proposed use of the number of university graduates living in a school's catchment area to determine "realistic but achievable" targets.
Political and professional hostility to reliance on the other leg of free meals as the only measure to define the nature of a school now suggests the Government has some way to go towards devising a robust system.
This in turn implies that raw exam results, however one-sided, are likely to remain in their nationally published form at least in the short term. Brian Wilson told The TES Scotland after this week's meeting: "I am reluctant to take away the existing national information, however much I deplore the way it is turned into league tables, unless I am sure something more reliable is being put in its place."
The action group bowed to the criticism that the number of local residents aged 18-45 with higher education qualifications would not reflect the parental make-up of children who actually attend a school. This is particularly the case in urban areas where parental choice generates considerable pupil traffic not only across school catchments but over council boundaries.
Targets for next session, covering 5-14 attainment in literacy and numeracy and Standard grade and Higher results, will now be set largely by reference to the proportion of pupils on free meals.
The reliance on free meals was attacked at Monday's standards group meeting in Glasgow by John Ward, who chairs the Government's Advisory Scottish Council on Education and Training Targets. Professor Ward said that the figures are based on uptake of free meals, not entitlement. Statistics showed that 19 per cent of pupils were entitled to free meals at the time of the annual survey in April but only 16 per cent took them.
Elizabeth Maginnis, education spokesperson for the local authorities, who is a member of the action group, scorned a standards-raising strategy "based on a measure of social and economic failure, which free meals represent". Mrs Maginnis plans to ask parents in Edinburgh, where she is education convener, to disclose their qualifications as a value-added measure of how home background affects pupil attainment.
Bill Coyle, who advises a number of councils as well as the Scottish Office on school performance, also criticised the absence of a "social advantage" measure which will challenge the top-performing, middle-class schools.
"A school like Bearsden Academy, which takes in a lot of free-meal pupils from Drumchapel, would get a low rating and therefore be seen as doing artificially well," Mr Coyle said. "If the free meal measure was working properly, we should be getting a mix of schools obtaining good results."
These flaws have persuaded the action group that schools will have to demonstrate absolute levels of minimum improvement in addition to doing comparatively well against those in similar circumstances.
The Inspectorate has drawn up a benchmark figure for a 7 per cent increase in the numbers attaining Standard grades 1-4 over the next three years, against a previous three-year average of 3 per cent. But this has not been finally agreed.