Thumbs down for postcode targets

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Local authority reservations about the Government's approach to raising standards in Scotland are crystallising around the use of a "school characteristic index" and opposition to any imposition of targets.

Councils welcome the move to a more value-added approach which is intended to compare the effectiveness of schools in similar circumstances. But they particularly dislike the use of postcodes to calculate the number of local adults with a higher education qualification (PQUAL). Together with the percentages of pupils on free meals, this would make up the index used to group like schools.

In an otherwise supportive response, East Renfrewshire says "the value of using postcodes as an indicator has to be questioned" in an area with a high level of placing requests. Highland says the qualifications index should "refer only to the parents of pupils attending that school".

Highland states: "Factors such as placing requests, well qualified parents opting for private education but still being used in the calculation of the school index, movement of population between census dates, could all distort the index." The distortion would be worse in smaller schools, it is argued.

Glasgow agrees that the use of placing requests "makes complete nonsense" of the proposal. "Hillhead Secondary is situated with the G12 postcode which may have a high PQUAL value but it draws pupils from another 29 postcode areas where the PQUAL value will be considerably lower," the council's submission states.

West Lothian and Midlothian say the index requires considerable refinement. Midlothian adds that the use of free meals could be suspect because some families who are eligible do not apply. It agrees with the criticisms of postcodes and adds that the restriction of adults with higher education qualifications to those aged 18-45 ignores the fact that many parents of school-age children are over 45.

East Lothian describes the index as "a relatively crude device". It also fears that grouping schools with similar characteristics could lead to lower targets for schools in deprived areas. Targets, should be "realistic" but reflect the highest possible expectations of pupils.

The Education Minister does not dissent from these propositions, having declared that if the index turns out to be a blunt instrument "it should be honed to the point where it becomes a sharp instrument". Brian Wilson also recently stressed the need for high expectations.

But Glasgow warns: "Unless there is universal agreement that the school characteristic index is highly sensitive to individual schools and that the baseline data being used is relevant and accurate, then the entire exercise will be viewed as fundamentally flawed and subsequent comparisons possibly unfair and misleading."

A number of the responses also draw attention to the danger that targets may be "unduly restricted to what is currently measurable", in Midlothian's view. Personal and social education, work experience, sports development and the arts all add value to a pupil's education, East Lothian states.

The use of national targets to track schools' progress in discipline, attendance and learning and teaching is not desirable in the short-term until more reliable data is available, Highland says. Time and resources would be needed to monitor schools' assessments since "wishful thinking could overcome objectivity".

Councils appear to be converging on baseline assessment on entry into primary 1 as the best means of tracking pupil progress and school effectiveness. East Renfrewshire plans baseline assessment followed by testing at the end of primary 3, primary 7 and secondary 2.

The submissions, which will be considered by the Education Minister's action group on standards at its second meeting in December, also warn that 5-14 test results should not be used.

Midlothian says many schools still have difficulty in formulating clear targets or criteria for success . East Lothian goes further and suggests the new approach of externally devised targets could undermine development planning.

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