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Arrows of desire

The Government wants secondary schools to set themselves targets Karen Thornton reports.

The target-setting bandwagon is about to pull up outside the nation's secondary schools.

After a year spent exhorting primary schools to pull up their socks on literacy and numeracy, ministers are now turning their attention to results at age 16.

Last week Stephen Byers, the standards minister, confirmed that secondary schools must start setting GCSE targets for themselves.

They must, he said, publish three goals: numbers of pupils with five passes at A* to C; with one pass at A* to G (or equivalent); and the average points score per pupil. The first targets, for students sitting exams in 2000, must be set by December 31 of this year.

He did not leave it there. Mr Byers also announced government plans to set national GCSE targets using the first two of these measures. The detail will come in the next few weeks.

Combined with already established goals for 11-year-olds, he believes these national targets will create a clear way of judging improvements made by individual schools.

But a desire for symmetry has probably been less important in the move towards GCSE targets than concerns about social exclusion and the 48,000 pupils who last year left school without a single qualification. This failure, often characterised as a statistical "tail" of underachievement, has featured ever more prominently in ministerial speeches.

Not everybody agrees with Mr Byers's remedy. However, even when the doubts are put aside (see below) - and they will be put aside - the business of setting the detailed GCSE targets remains tricky. They must be seen as both challenging and achievable.

Unfortunately, after years of rapid improvement, the rate of progress has slowed significantly. The percentage of pupils achieving five A* to C passes has been rising year on year, but slowly. Meanwhile the 92.3 percent achieving one A* to G pass is unchanged from four years ago.

Bearing this in mind, Labour has to take a punt on how much additional difference schools can make in the next few years. Certainly it will not want to share the embarrassment of the last Conservative administration whose national qualifications targets for the millennium proved laughably unrealistic.

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