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Autumn push for target setting

Nicholas Pyke reports on the Government's plans for individual schools to set their own standards.

All schools will be expected to set targets for improvement in examinations and the curriculum, the Government announced this week.

Responding to the continuing controversy about educational under-achievement, Education Secretary Gillian Shephard said that the scheme, to be launched in the autumn, is part of a further drive to raise standards.

"We will be making an announcement about target setting for individual schools - schools setting their own targets, in other words," she said.

This is already an aspect of Labour's education proposals, and is thought to play a major role in the educational success enjoyed by some Far Eastern countries.

The plans, still being completed by the Department for Education and Employment's school effectiveness division, seem likely to concentrate on what pupils achieve from the curriculum as well as on more obvious indicators such as exam results.

It is not yet clear what role will be played by the Office for Standards in Education or the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. But both organisations already sit on a target-setting group along with the DFEE. SCAA is currently working on producing benchmarks to allow schools to assess their own performance against national norms.

It is also uncertain what role will be given to local education authorities, many of which are already involved in setting and monitoring academic goals.

This week, the Government was warned by a leading figure in the field that effective target setting would be hard to achieve without LEA involvement.

Professor Peter Mortimore, director of London University's Institute of Education, said: "You need information about what other schools are doing in similar circumstances. And, if schools set targets that are too low, someone has to tell them. This may be an issue for grant-maintained schools, particularly those in affluent areas."

But he applauded the initiative. "Schools need to formulate targets which are ambitious, and then do everything they can to achieve them."

A spokesman for the DFEE insisted that the Government will not be imposing centrally produced targets on individual schools and is unlikely to lay down anything more specific than benchmarks.

The targets would take account of local and regional variations. "They would have to be realistic in terms of the circumstances, the nature of the school, the area it's in and so on. That's why you can't have uniform targets," he said. "Schools will have to look at the performance of pupils in terms of exam results, what they're achieving from the curriculum, things like that."

This is set to be the biggest push so far in the direction of target setting, although there have been initiatives of this kind before. Earlier this year, the Government said that Pounds 2 million would be available for primary schools in 23 LEAs that have used target setting effectively.

There is also a series of national training and education targets for school-leavers. By the year 2000, the Government hopes that 85 per cent of 18-year-olds will have the equivalent of five GCSEs at grade C or higher, and the equivalent of two A-levels by the age of 21.

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