Schools told: 'Standards could be better and we must build on our strengths'
Every primary and secondary school in Scotland will be expected to meet "demanding and achievable" performance targets from next year under the standards initiative unveiled this week by Brian Wilson, the Education Minister.
A new national action group, which Mr Wilson is to chair, will ensure that the targets are being met and produce an annual progress report. The group holds its first meeting in August, followed by a consultation paper which will set out the content, the coverage, the levels and the rate of improvement in the targets.
The launch of the initiative on Monday coincided with publication of a more hardline and wide-ranging education White Paper in England (page six). But Mr Wilson minister is prepared to face down charges from political opponents that he is afraid to wield what he dismissed as a "big stick" against teachers or schools.
The White Paper in England proposes powers to close failing schools and a "faster but fairer" way of removing failing teachers. These moves were also in Labour's Scottish manifesto but Mr Wilson said on Monday he had no statutory powers and no plans to seek any.
Mr Wilson, ironically for a politician with a strongly anti-devolutionary past, seems determined to strike out on a distinctively Scottish course and set his face against the "Anglicisation" of Scottish education, the charge once levelled against his Conservative predecessors.
His views are remarkably close to those of Raymond Robertson, the former Tory education minister, who scorned talk of dismissing teachers and closing underperforming schools. Mr Robertson told the Tory conference in Aberdeen last year that Labour was "more concerned with stigmatising schools, labelling pupils as failures and finding scapegoats in teachers than improving standards".
Mr Wilson is clearly prepared to accentuate that "positive agenda of improvement", as he put it. Target-setting, first flagged in his equal opportunities speech in Glasgow in May, was also the basis of an "education standards guarantee" for parents announced by Michael Forsyth, the former Scottish Secretary, in February.
Mr Forsyth did not propose the closure of "failing schools" either and echoed Mr Wilson's pledge that they would be brought up to standard, which has ironically run into criticism from Labour's Tory and other political opponents for being a "soft" approach.
Mr Wilson said this week: "I am not suggesting standards overall are poor, far from it. But they could be better and we must build on our strengths."
He is pinning his hopes on a rolling programme of targets to raise both achievement and expectations, so that problems with maths, science, writing and modern languages revealed in recent studies can be picked up sooner. Early findings from the 1996 Assessment of Achievement Programme in science are expected to underline once again relatively poor progress from primary 6 to secondary 2.
Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector of schools who will be vice-chairman of the action group on standards, said: "This is all about encouraging schools to improve, not threatening them if they don't. I start from the principle that schools are staffed by professionals who all want to do the best possible job they can."
The new targets will be based on the 5-14 attainment levels, Standard grades and Highers. In a letter to all 32 council education conveners, Mr Wilson said they would be agreed with schools and councils. Targets will have "proper regard" to a school's existing level of performance and the nature of its catchment area.
Schools would have to report each year on their progress towards achieving the targets and the targets themselves are likely to be reviewed every three years. Around 50 schools in 17 councils are already in the midst of piloting a reporting approach along the lines of HMI's Standards and Quality document.
The first priority is to develop targets in literacy and numeracy but also in other "non-achievement" aspects such as attendance and homework. These steps would build on the Scottish approach of school development planning and self-evaluation.
Mr Wilson said he envisaged that school-wide measures would be the forerunner of targets for individual pupils and form the basis of personal learning plans, developed by Labour while in opposition. But he said on Monday that was for a later stage and recognised there were resource implications.
The importance of resources was underlined by the Educational Institute of Scotland in a tepid welcome for the initiative. It is likely to join the action group but Ian McKay, the union's assistant secretary, warned: "The way we measure standards is not without its problems."
This will be the key challenge for the action group which Mr Wilson stressed would be broadly based, drawing members from outside education as well as within. Others who have accepted invitations to join are Elizabeth Maginnis, education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, John Travers, president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, and John MacBeath, head of the Quality in Education Centre at Jordanhill, who sits on the standards task force south of the border.
The EIS said it hoped "discredited" tables of exam performance would not be part of the new approach. But Mr Wilson gave a firm "yes" when asked if tables would continue to be published.