Target-setting which aims for the bull's-eye
An ideal target is one which is within sight but just out of reach, motivating a pupil to stretch and achieve. But it is not easy to devise. There is always the danger that teachers will simply set pupils up to fail, to o'erleap themselves and fall on the other side.
Scottish schools more often err in the opposite direction, says Ian Thomson, acting head of Auchmuty High in Glenrothes, where a sophisticated target-setting system has been delivering impressive results. "In the past, teachers would be pleased if everybody passed Higher in their subject. But it was maybe six pupils. I'd rather have 10 pupils sitting the exam and eight passing - a lower pass-rate but higher numbers, more kids getting the opportunity."
In the wake of an inspection report that criticised attainment levels at Auchmuty in 2006-07, the management instigated a number of measures aimed at raising them. At their heart was a new target-setting system which Mr Thomson had seen at an education conference, where David McTaggart of Top Targets gave a presentation. The system focused initially on Highers. "The great thing is that it's not just 'pick a number' with teachers relying entirely on professional judgment," says Mr Thomson.
"The way it works is we give Top Targets a department's SQA results for the past five years and they enter them into the system, which then compares every past pupil's performance at Higher with their Standard grade result."
Acting depute head and principal teacher of physics Alan McGimpsey pulls up a multi-coloured chart on the computer screen and explains: "You do this with the pupil sitting beside you. So here's Rachel, there are her results at Standard grade, and we want to know what she should aim for at Higher. She and her physics teacher, for example, will look at this chart together."
The chart has seven vertical bars showing the number of pupils with, (in Rachel's case), a Grade 1 physics who went on to get A, B or C (and at which band) at Higher. Green, yellow and red colours enhance the visual impact and information flow.
Another pupil with a different fourth-year grade would study a different chart. But every one can grasp at a glance the context in which their own targets have to be set. It's that context which provides the added value in the system, since it enables a pupil to judge immediately how ambitious or realistic a target grade is - for a pupil with his or her fourth-year grade in that department.
Green predominates in the charts for the physics department, indicating high conversion rates of good fourth-year results to good grades at Higher - which helps explain Mr McGimpsey's enthusiasm for the system.
The system is visual and no need for a teacher to be numerate, says Louise Scott, principal teacher of religious and moral education. "It lets pupils see where they're going, so they can work towards achieving it. It's not just about numbers. When you are setting targets, you are engaging with the kids. You talk about what motivates them, what their priorities are, what can help them to achieve their goals. It helps you learn about them. Mine are lovely."
Ironically, it is the ease of use that can raise resistance among some teachers. Charts for any department are available to all, and can make uncomfortable viewing for those who are less effective at converting good fourth-year results to good Higher passes. "It shows clearly where departments should be doing better," says Mr Thomson.
"There is growing confidence in the system. It's always difficult to separate things when you're trying many ways to improve, but our attainment was well up last year and I believe Top Targets was significant in that. It motivates the pupils.
"We're also using it this year with Intermediate 2. There is a way to go yet before target-setting becomes part of the culture in every department. But we're getting there."