The Education Minister has reiterated his determination to drive up standards in a keynote address to a conference on "Quality in education - from vision to reality", organised last week by Edinburgh City Council and The TES Scotland. Brian Wilson's message was that "every school has the capacity to be excellent" but he warned that "complacency is the enemy of success".
Mr Wilson acknowledged two of the major reservations about plans for every school to have three-year targets set from next August concentrating initially on literacy, numeracy and attainment.
Targets were not an end in themselves, he agreed, and areas of the school curriculum not covered by targets were also important. But literacy and numeracy were the fundamentals from which all else flowed, Mr Wilson said. They had also been chosen because data was available and good work was being done which could be developed.
In response to a question from Professor Pamela Munn of Moray House Institute of Education about the risk of narrowing the curriculum by an over-concentration on the basics, Mr Wilson said: "An awareness of that danger in the classroom, among education authorities and by the Inspectorate is the best safeguard against it. But it is not something we can legislate for. "
Mr Wilson showed no signs of being deflected by criticisms of target-setting which he acknowledged must be well focused. "Part of being well focused is being relevant. There is no point in setting a target for a school if the school has already progressed beyond that stage. Equally there is no point in setting a target if there is no chance of the school reaching it. None of us is motivated to try something when we know that we are more than likely to fail.
"I have shared the widespread concern among you about inappropriate judgments made between schools on the basis of raw data. Targets therefore, while being set in a national framework, will take account of each school's circumstances. And while schools may well all have different starting points they will all have the common theme of striving for improvement. Disadvantage will not be accepted as an alibi for failure. Let me repeat that every school has the capacity to be excellent."
Mr Wilson was challenged, however, by Colin Russell, head of Gorebridge primary in Midlothian, who criticised the use of postcodes to set targets based on the number of adults with higher education qualifications in the school's local area. That was "a very blunt instrument which could lead to inappropriate targets being set".
Mr Wilson conceded: "There is certainly no point in creating a blunt instrument and, if there is that possibility, it should be honed to the point where it becomes a sharp instrument. The methodology must command respect. It must be professionally and technically acceptable. I can assure you that it will be."
He pledged that schools would be supported in delivering the Government's agenda, either in improving standards or making teachers more effective. "Schools are not starting from scratch and they are not starting alone, " he said. "We are building on strengths already in the system."
The Government saw its job as providing "nurture and support" to help schools realise their potential. "And we don't want to do this by telling you what we think you ought to do and leave you to get on with it, or producing clever policy papers formulated in ivory towers."
But Mr Wilson repeated his determination to subject teachers to the test of effectiveness, starting with an annual appraisal regime backed by "high-quality, focused professional development". New guidelines on appraisal are being drawn up by the National Co-ordinating Committee for the Staff Development of Teachers.
He took the opportunity to "lay one misconception about appraisal to rest" in declaring that appraisal is "a separate process from that needed to identify and deal with the small minority of teachers who are unable to make a positive contribution. We must and shall have speedy and effective but fair arrangements to remove them."
The Scottish Office is working on a scheme which will link initial teaching competencies to "the broad types of roles undertaken by teachers in schools at later stages in their careers". The aim is to map out career routes for teachers and identify the training different roles will require.
Mr Wilson stressed that an effective teacher is also a good leader and that leadership is not just a matter exclusively for the headteacher. On the other hand, he was anxious that "the skilled but ambitious young teacher" should not have to desert the classroom for school management, a problem the creation of 5,500 senior teacher posts was intended to address. He said he was consulting on this issue.
Targets under fire
Directors of education led the way in expressing scepticism about a target based approach for measuring schools' performance.
At a conference session on "national effectiveness", Michael O'Neill, director in North Lanarkshire, described the targets drawn up as "a very narrow approach to quantifying attainment". Areas like work experience and personal development were also valid and quantifiable, Mr O'Neill said.
Shelagh Rae, director in Renfrewshire, took issue with "the confusion caused by very specific targets. These can be a management tool, but problems arise when targets which are meant to be indicators become a complete measure of performance in themselves."
Dan Sweeney, head of quality development in North Lanarkshire's education department, warned: "There has got to be more coherence between what is happening locally and nationally. Otherwise targets are nothing more than statistical wallpaper."
David Raffe, director of the Centre for Educational Sociology at Edinburgh University, said: "It's easier to raise targets than raise performance. " Scotland's performance in advanced and lower level qualification was better than in vocational and adult learning.
Initiatives to watch out for
* The Scottish Office's pre-school consultation paper, due to be issued shortly, will make proposals on achieving "greater coherence in qualifications for child care and early education to make sure these link together and integrate in a sensible way", Brian Wilson stated.
* Further moves on teacher training will be directed at improving the position of modern languages in primary schools. Some 3,750 primary teachers will have gone through the modern languages primary training programme by the end of its current fifth phase.
* In the clearest public hint yet that Labour in power is less than enthusiastic about its call in opposition for school commissions to replace school boards, Mr Wilson said: "Rather than worrying about what to call a parental body, I want to find the best way of harnessing the goodwill and commitment of the parent body. They have a contribution to make in raising standards and I look forward to a wider discussion of how best to achieve this."
* 'Who knows what they're doing?'
Kenneth Greer, the HMI who has been heavily involved in the Inspectorate's forthcoming report on the early years of secondary, highlighted the confusion facing children when he recounted the experience of his 13-year-old son: "The teacher said if I worked really hard, I could get level E. But I already got one in P7. I'm not sure there's one person in the school who really knows what I'm doing."
Mr Greer said the legacy of the eighties was that pupils were making poor progress, learning and teaching were insufficiently effective and the curriculum was not always well matched to pupils' ability. Radical solutions proposed included core teachers in early secondary, more specialists in primary and changing the age of transfer.
But Mr Greer warned: "If you plant plants out in the garden, you shouldn't keep pulling them up to review their roots." He said: "Given time, 5-14 will address the issues. Aspects of 5-14 have not yet been completed. Why review them at this stage? If performance at Standard grade, Higher and National Certificate continues to improve, is there a problem?" His audience was unanimous that there is.
* It is not possible to implement individualised learning on the basis that "every child is special", Sheila Riddell, professor of social policy (disability studies) at Glasgow University, told another conference session. "In terms of parental choice, we need to ensure that this does not result in a free for all where more powerful groups capture the lion's share of resources, " Professor Riddell said * A session on "Higher Still into higher education" heard James Brown, head of central admissions at Glasgow University, warn that "Advanced Highers do not match sufficiently closely with first level university teaching in order to allow complete exemption." He did not wish to see Advanced Higher treated "as an A-level in a kilt".