THE SCOTTISH Executive will have to wait some time before knowing whether it is on track towards its key objective of improving primary children's attainment in the basics.
The first of the Executive's annual social justice reports (TESS last week) details a series of educational milestones along the road to achieving poverty and exclusion targets by the year 2020. They are directed at children, young people, families, older people and communities.
The first target for children is that "all children in Scotland can read, write and count to a level appropriate for their ability on leaving primary school".
The measurement used is the proportion of pupils in primaries 2 and 7 achieving levels A and D in 5-14 tests in reading, writing and maths. Since last year was the first year of collection, no year-on-year comparisons are possible yet. But the figures do show a considerable improvement on pupils' mastery of the basics by the time they reach primary 7.
The figures for last year show that pupils perform much better in numeracy in primary 2 than they do in literacy, but they make up considerable ground in the former by the time they reach primary 7. The proportion of primary 2 pupils at or beyond level A in maths was 66 per cent, compared with only 37 per cent in reading and 16 per cent in writing.
By primary 7, level D pupils numbered 64 per cent in maths, 65 per cent in reading and 47 per cent in writing. As ever, girls out-performed boys in each subject at both stages.
The target to have access to quality care and early learning for all children before they enter school is measured by the number of three and four-year-olds in pre-school education, which stood respectively at 68 per cent and 97 per cent in June.
The Executive also wants to see all 11,000-plus children in local authority care leave with at least a Standard grade in English and maths, but there is no data at present on the educational achievements of care-leavers, and this is unlikely to be available for all schools until 2002-03.
A key target, and one particularly embraced by Donald Dewar, the late First Minister, is boosting the Standard grade achievements of the poorest performing 20 per cent of pupils to bring them loser to the remaining 80 per cent. This will be extended to include pupils at Access and Intermediate levels once Higher Still is fully in place.
Applying a tariff score to results (in which a Standard grade 1 is worth 38 points and a Standard grade 7 three points) and then adding them up, the figures show that the bottom 20 per cent improved from 43 points in 1995 to 55 last year, compared with an average tariff for the rest of S4 which rose from 175 to 189 in 1999.
The gap between the two groups has therefore steadily opened up because both improved their performance. Once again, girls consistently pulled ahead of boys.
The social justice agenda faces another educational challenge in trying to reduce by a third the number of days lost through exclusions and truancy by 2001.
Unauthorised absences meant 58.5 days lost in primary schools in 1994-95, which rose to 213 in 1998-99; in secondary schools there was an increase from 487 days to 661. Pupils removed from a school's register (formerly known as permanent exclusions) numbered 22 in primary schools in 1994-95, rising to 25 in 1998-99. The number of secondary pupils removed from the register fell from 213 to 104 in the corresponding period.
The report points out, however, that the earlier statistics are less reliable than the most recent ones because of wide inconsistencies in the collection and definition of the figures. But it concludes from the last three years that "removal from the register and unauthorised absence are increasing in primary schools, while in secondary schools the levels appear to be consolidating".
But perhaps the most ambitious target of all is that every 19- year-old should be in education, work or training, with the most immediate "milestone" objective being to halve the proportion of 16 to 19-year-olds in none of these.
In 1993, 15 per cent of the age group were outside the three categories - this figure fluctuated close to that level in the intervening period, to stand at 14 per cent this year.
The report notes there were 33,000 people aged 16-19 who were not in education, work or training last year, which means 17,000 would need to move into one of the categories to beat the milestone target.