Ushering in a new era of school assessment

Our News focus this week is about Castlebrae Community High School in Edinburgh, which was saved from closure earlier this year even though there are just 10 students in S1 (see pages 16-18).

Castlebrae has been branded a failing school. It was "slammed" by inspectors in August - to quote one newspaper - and the city's own education officials have argued that it should close, so poor is its performance.

But the context in which schools like Castlebrae operate cannot be ignored. Half of the students on the school's tiny roll of just 130 have additional support needs; many arrive with low literacy skills; and the school serves Craigmillar, one of the most deprived areas in Scotland.

This is not the whole story, of course. Even when compared with schools serving similar catchment areas, Castlebrae does badly. But it is clear that if we are going to judge a school's performance on the number of students achieving a clutch of good grades, such schools can never hope to come out on top.

This narrow concept of success has been much criticised. And, as we report on page 6, the first step towards a new era of analysing school performance has been taken this week, with the launch of the preview edition of the Senior Phase Benchmarking Tool.

This method of assessing Scottish schools' performance could give leaders of institutions like Castlebrae hope. It aims to shine a light not only on the achievements of the highest-performing 20 per cent but also on the lowest-attaining 20 per cent, and the 60 per cent in the middle, too. At a glance, schools will be able to see if they are catering to the needs of all students by comparing performance nationally and locally, and to a computer-generated school.

The tool will also judge schools on how well they tackle disadvantage, the proportion of students leaving with a good grounding in literacy and numeracy (Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework level 4 and above) and where they end up afterwards. On this measure, at least, Castlebrae should do well - 92 per cent of students went on to positive destinations in 2011-12.

Wider achievement should also be taken into account. Sir Ian Wood, the businessman charged by the Scottish government with investigating how to get young people into work, has called for the tool to give credit to schools for achievement in vocational subjects. Again, this would be good news for Castlebrae. Although it performs poorly in more academic subjects, the school has done "very well" when it comes to subjects such as hair and beauty and construction, according to inspectors.

The benchmarking tool will officially launch next year. The preview edition provides an opportunity for schools and councils to help shape it.

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