Zoom in on child targets;Target Setting

10th December 1999 at 00:00
This week an HMI report on assessment, next week benchmarks and attainment targets. But what are local authorities doing to meet their goals? Gillian Macdonald reports

This week saw the publication by Her Majesty's inspectors of the long-awaited report on 5-14 assessment. Next week, they will produce the first progress report on attainment targets with tables of how all the education authorities are doing and whether they are on track for achieving their primary and secondary targets for 2001. Together, the reports reflect some of the biggest changes taking place in Scottish schools, in terms of management and teaching methods.

"Targets" is the current buzz word, along with "benchmarks" and "performance indicators" - all powerful tools in the hands of management. Now, thanks to computers, they can be flashed up in tables, bar charts and cluster charts and presented to the people who are expected to follow through with results.

Watching statistics experts such as Bill Coyle and his colleagues at East Renfrewshire Council giving a presentation on benchmarking and target setting is to be dazzled by the technology. Flicking from one overhead projection image to another, they zoom in from the national picture to a local picture, then to groups of 10 secondary schools, comparing how they are doing in, say, maths or science.

If St Ninian's High stands out for its maths achievement and Barrhead comes low, then the authority makes it its business to encourage the low-achieving school to find out how the high-achieving department reached such a standard, and to see if it can apply any of the techniques to its own classes.

East Renfrewshire Council is famous for its wizardry. Mr Coyle and co have a special unit processing statistics and turning the science into an art form. His colleague John Wilson was seconded to the Scottish Office for six months to work on benchmarking. Fourteen Scottish authorities have already bought into the system, based on an old Strathclyde database. Others are watching with interest.

But what are all these tables and charts based on? Therein lies the problem for many education authorities, school managers and teachers. And the scepticism. And the fear.

The scepticism is because the primary figures based on 5-14 curriculum assessment are generally considered to be unreliable. They are a combination of targets for P3, P4, P6 and P7 based on teachers' assessments, some standardised against national tests such as reading tests set by the National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales (NFER), others not. Secondary figures are less of a problem, because they are based on actual Standard grade and Higher results and averaged out over a period of three years.

The fear is because many teachers suspect they will be held accountable for missed targets. If detailed targets can now be drawn up for a particular authority, for a school within it, even a department and individual pupil, then where does that place the teacher whose class falls short of the targets, or whose pupil fails to meet the expected grade? Parents and inspectors will want to know.

What is more, this comes at a time when Sam Galbraith, the Minister for Children and Education, wants to make teachers more "professional" and the powers of the General Teaching Council are being reviewed, with implications for failing teachers. It's enough to make a teacher paranoid.

The other problem with the computer data and abstract tables is working out what they all mean for the children. For a generation of teachers and education directors trained in the post-Plowden era of child-centred learning, they can be hard to swallow.

But the authorities have been far from passive. While edicts and policies come from on high, authorities such as Aberdeen and Edinburgh have been beavering away, devising their own approaches from the bottom up. As one Edinburgh headteacher said: "National target setting provides the tools (to focus) on where we're going to, not how we're going to get there." What is fascinating is to see how the two are beginning to merge.

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