Janet Law says the national action group must listen to schools and local authorities
With the publication of Setting Targets: Raising Standards in Schools, it is to be hoped that the period of excessive publicity and hype recently associated with national decision-making in education has come to an end. When Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, established an action group on standards last summer, it was obvious that this was a reaction to some of the more outlandish publicity opportunities which characterised the education debate at the time. Setting up the group gave Scotland respite from some of the more absurd targets and commitments that were proposed. It also gave the opportunity for involvement across the different interests in Scottish education. However, there was still something incredible about the idea of an action group in Edinburgh sitting down to set targets for each school in Scotland.
First, any meaningful target-setting exercise must start with the schools themselves. Second, any serious initiative must be based on achievable targets for individual pupils. This implies a thorough knowledge of the pupils in each school by year group. Third, meaningful monitoring of targets has to be carried out at local level as part of a system of school self-evaluation. The best practice in quality assurance demands this type of approach and is clearly best supported by local authorities which know the schools and have the responsibility for running the education service.
With all these theoretical difficulties to overcome what would the action group produce? Early indications were not hopeful but the mission impossible to achieve the theoretically perfect school characteristics index continued. The best solution which could be achieved involves the use of free meals entitlement as an indicator to allow schools to be compared with similar ones. It is still not clear where the information on entitlement to free school meals as opposed to uptake will come from.
Questions also arise as to how far staffing and resourcing affect performance. If schools argue that resources are the problem, it will not be simple for local authorities to take action. Education budgets are under pressure and it will not be known which schools are being compared with which. Determining whether resources lie at the root of failure to achieve targets will be difficult. None the less it is bound to be argued that additional resources for staff development, appropriate differentiated materials and increased staff time with individual pupils are all likely to be helpful in improving standards.
The intention of HMI's Audit Unit not to give information about which schools are being compared with which takes away many of the difficulties of the league table approach. However, the target-setting exercise involves a level of trust in the methodology which those involved in determining the benchmarking information will have to strive hard to achieve. This solution also ignores the prior learning of pupils, and poses particular difficulties for small schools which from time to time may have year groups with particularly high levels of low achieving pupils.
While the document refers to the involvement of individual schools in setting appropriate achievable targets, the national targets to which all schools will contribute have been set. It will be hard for individual schools to challenge the provisional targets set for them, or for anyone to be relaxed about the idea of targets not being achieved. Since the members of the action group have pinned their colours to the mast, they are likely to have done exactly what schools will also be tempted to do - set targets for themselves which are not too risky.
But questions naturally arise as to what will happen after publication of Raising Standards. The next stages of the process ought to be less high profile and allow an opportunity for schools to consider their own targets, which may not just involve those in areas which the document identifies. It will be helpful if this can be done in an atmosphere relatively free from superficial soundbites. On the obvious question of "next steps", a clear and reasonably realistic timetable is set out, but in some ways the document is as interesting for its omissions as for what it includes.
Exactly what information will be sent to schools and by whom? The text on this subject makes reference to Annex 2. But Annex 2 is unhelpful, telling us that it repeats tables which are elsewhere in the document for convenient reference. Is this uninteresting repetition the result of a rapid revision of the content of Annex 2? Has some controversial reporting format been suddenly dropped? This would perhaps allow some more time to consider the role of the local authorities, which is especially important as the target-setting exercise started badly with the Inspectorate appearing to bypass the usual routes of communication with schools.
Other gaps include any details about how targets will be reported and to whom. Again this could be a reassuring omission suggesting a period of further discussion or reflection, or it could mean that plans are in place to publish lists of school targets in the national press setting the scene for a further exercise on reporting of how far the targets have been achieved.
How will secondary heads, who will be involved several months before their primary colleagues, set about determining their targets? Will they confidently assume that they can meet these apparently arbitrary goals? Will they have confidence in the methodology? Will there be a temptation to invest time and resources in pupils who are most likely to achieve the necessary Standard or Higher grade passes, at the expense of the pupils who are achieving at a less advanced level?
Even if the targets are accepted as valid, it will not be easy for schools to decide how best to raise the attainment of those pupils within range of them. Will they seek to do this by improving learning and teaching across the board for all pupils, by investing time and effort with those having the greatest difficulties, or by concentrating resources at the top? As factors such as self-esteem are likely to be important, long-term attention to improving school ethos must not be neglected.
The process of target-setting for primary schools is likely to be more difficult. Smaller schools will have more difficulties related to the variable levels of attainment of particular year groups. The recent emphasis has been on early intervention, a levelling out of disadvantages at the earliest opportunity which should pay off in terms of the achievement of individuals in the long term. It will not be helpful to individual pupils if they are under pressure to perform to achieve externally imposed targets. In addition, targets for primaries will relate to achievements which are internally rather than externally assessed.
The unanswered questions go on and on. How will local authorities across Scotland react? How sympathetic will HMI be to exceptional circumstances? What will happen to schools that fail to achieve their targets? Will the Scottish Qualifications Authority maintain its standards? But none of these unanswered questions should lead the members of the action group to suppose that their search for the Holy Grail of answers should continue. The group's credibility will be greatly enhanced if it recognises the limits to its role and allows the partnerships which it should represent to develop at all levels. The group intends to continue to monitor the targets it has set, but we must hope that it has learnt some lessons which lead to evidence of its own continuous improvement.
Janet Law is education convener, Perth and Kinross Council.