There are four grades of school: "leading school, first-rate school, good school and school," Evelyn Waugh's hero in Decline and Fall learns. "Frankly, school is pretty bad."
The typology of schools the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has in mind for its new like-with-like comparisons of school improvement needs to be more enlightened. Though the details have yet to be worked out, the plan (page 5) is that every school will be required from next year to publish challenging national curriculum and examination targets. These would be publicly comparable with benchmark figures derived from what the top 25 per cent of schools in similar circumstances have shown to be possible. The rate of progress aimed at, and the means of achieving it, will be left to heads and governors in each school.
The idea, if it can be made to work, is a good one; a welcome step beyond raw results. It has the potential to provide heads and governors with information which is not just fairer and less demoralising to those striving to raise standards against the odds, but also of more practical use for managing improvement. If it can be made a reality in a readily understandable form, performance towards realistic targets could even displace crude league tables. It would certainly combat any complacency. Recognising the adverse circumstances of some schools encourages them to set higher but realistic expectations rather than to justify failure. And the underachievement in more favoured settings would at last be exposed.
But crucial to the proposal seems to be the assumption that schools can be clustered together, statistically speaking, into credible categories or groups which "take account of intake characteristics" as well as "pupils' prior attainments". The variables this could include suggest a task of some complexity: all the various species of selection; boys, girls and mixed schools; the continuum from inner city to rural location; various baseline attainments of intakes; numbers and degrees of special need, pupils with English as a second language or no English at all; and various measures of social deprivation.
If the categories are too finely drawn, the scheme risks being too complex for public and political consumption and a nightmare to administer. Groups of schools in very special circumstances might also simply constitute samples that are too small and unstable. If the groupings are too crude, attention will focus on the perceived injustices rather than the measures needed to make progress against the odds.
Governors may resent yet another imposition for their annual report. But hundreds of entries to The TES's annual report award competition in recent years have shown that if governing bodies are monitoring standards, few think to tell parents about it. In reality few governors are equipped to do so, not least because most have nothing to compare their school with. They should welcome new benchmarks presented in a comprehensible manner. Recent worksheets issued by SCAA supposedly aimed at helping governors to evaluate national curriculum and exam results have simply left some experienced governors baffled.
But providing targets, the means to check whether they have been achieved and public pressure to do so is only half of what is required. Schools also need the means to achieve those targets. If they really can be categorised according to what is expected of them, should the Government not also ensure schools in the same circumstances are equally funded and target additional cash to those shown to be most in need?