Something worth working for

11th May 2007 at 01:00
David McTaggart is a teacher with 27 years' experience. He runs Top Targets (Schools) in Coatbridge

The inspectorate's Journey to Excellence surprised nobody when it commended schools that set targets for pupils which "set clear expectations". Targets have been around since William Tell's schooldays.

Nor was the inspectors' praise unexpected for schools which "use performance analysis rigorously to improve learning and teaching outcomes".

Don't we all use STACs (Standard Tables and Charts)?

It would have been more helpful if HMIE had indicated exactly how performance data should be used to set targets and raise attainment, especially for high tariff exams in S56.

What we don't need are targets imposed by others, based on statistical measures such as comparator schools. Pupils and parents don't much care about results other than their own, and staff remain sceptical.

Teachers are encouraged, even required, to set targets which raise attainment but are fearful of becoming scapegoats if ambitious goals are not met. After all, what turkey votes for Christmas? Easy targets are more popular because they are likely to be met, but they do not lead to improvements.

Schools need easy access to their own performance data. The ScotXed (Scottish Exchange of Educational Data) provision is simply not good enough. STACs benchmarking between subjects and schools can be useful at management level but is of limited value when setting pupil targets.

Every target must be subject specific. UPS (unified point score) and GPA (grade point average) are crude measures of pupil potential. SQA's Research Bulletin 6 on progression to Higher casts doubt on their credibility for most Higher pupils.

For example, a pupil with Credit 2s in both English and maths is much more likely to pass the English Higher. Schools and their departments also vary in their ability to convert S4 results into S5 Highers. Averages across subjects are too imprecise a basis for attainment targets.

It would be better to give teachers access to their own subject's performance data in their own school across five years. This benchmark of past pupils' results would provide a more credible method for target setting. It could be used to motivate pupils to raise their expectations and try to beat previous awards. It would be a reality check for over-ambitious parents.

We also need a simple rationale, one with a long and strong track record of raising achievement. All the better if it comes from outside Scotland, as this will make it acceptable to the powers that be. But it must be expressed in jargon-free terms to pupils and parents, and be acceptable to the profession. A tall order, but not impossible.

Finally, the method chosen must be capable of duplication across all Scotland's schools. This suggests a web-based programme which will run on different school networks. It needs to be interactive, one which crunches data and provides a simple display of key information. It must motivate and raise expectations of both teachers and pupils. For details of such a programme see www.top-targets.co.uk

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