Staff favour targets -with reservations

28th November 1997 at 00:00
The first opinion poll of teachers' views on the Government's policy of setting targets for every school from next August has found overwhelming agreement in principle but grave reservations about the methodology.

More than 200 senior school staff from primary, secondary and special schools, whose views were canvassed by South Lanarkshire Council, supported the setting of "clear and realistic" targets by a majority of 98 per cent.

Three out of four teachers agreed on the importance of taking a school's characteristics into account when setting targets, but the same proportion rejected the proposed "school characteristic index". This is intended to group schools according to their characteristics, based on the number of free meals and the number of 18 to 45-year-olds in the school catchment area with higher education qualifications.

This latter element has run into fierce criticism because it is based on the general adult population and will not provide a precise measure of parents whose children actually attend the school. If unrealistic targets were then based on a high parental qualification score, schools would be demotivated, South Lanarkshire suggests.

The inspectorate believes local adult qualifications are nonetheless an important and reliable indicator in the absence of alternative data, although South Lanarkshire points out that the information would be drawn from the 1991 census.

The authority believes that a school characteristic index in the proposed form could create "poverty league tables" with top and bottom divisions, which would be as demoralising as the present exam tables.

Maggi Allan, South Lanarkshire's director of education, wants the Government to adopt a lighter approach, requiring education authorities to agree and meet targets with each school, taking social factors into account. "This way, the Government will achieve its prime objective of pushing up performance levels in all schools in a spirit of partnership and co-operation," Mrs Allan states.

But the council's survey also reveals that senior staff do not want target-setting to be based on comparisons of schools with similar characteristics. They argue that each school should compare its own current and best performances, which would "motivate it to do better than its previous best".

Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, has already hinted (TESS, November 7) that he might be prepared to refine the school characteristic index in response to criticism that it is "crude" and "blunt." The next meeting of the Minister's action group on standards, which is drawing up the targets, takes place next month.

East Ayrshire has also welcomed the Government's moves in principle but warns that ever-closer monitoring of school performance will cost money.

Despite the criticisms, directors of education were told at their annual conference in Dunblane yesterday that they should "welcome enthusiastically" the Government's approach, which was very different from the "naming and shaming" policy south of the border. John Travers, president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, told colleagues: "By all means, let us question the details of the targets set and the factors used in the calculation of the school characteristic index.

"But let us also acknowledge the massive improvement this approach represents when compared with the crude reliance on raw data and league tables which we have previously seen."

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