Professor Michael Barber, head of the school standards and effectiveness unit, told primary teachers at a TES conference in London that officials were aware of schools' concerns about target-setting.
"It's a good idea to set targets but it's not a perfect science and it's not something that people are going to be beaten around the head with. It can be something you aim for rather than something you hit," he said.
His speech marks a notably more flexible view of targets than the Government or local authorities have shown to date. It was made at the first of three TES teachers' seminars organised to promote expertise in literacy.
Professor Barber's words were interpreted by David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, as a recognition of the "daunting challenge" the Government has set primary schools.
It wants 80 per cent of 11-year-olds to achieve the literacy standard expected for their age (level 4) by 2002, and has set a series of related targets for education authorities. Primary schools have to set targets this term for performance in key stage 2 tests in 2000, and have also been coping with the launch of the National Literacy Strategy.
Primary teachers at the TES conference were particularly concerned about what they saw as the rigidity of the strategy's literacy hour. Some said they were under instruction from education authorities to do the strategy and target setting "by the book."
There were also concerns about how OFSTED inspectors might judge more flexible interpretations of the literacy hour.
Mr Hart suggested the softer line on target-setting was not getting through to schools.
"The Department for Education and Employment has made it clear that targets should be set for 2000 and 2002 as aspirations. From the way some authorities are acting - deliberately or negligently - you would have thought were set in stone," he said.
"The target-setting agenda is causing a quite unnecessary level of friction and tension between local authorities and their schools."
Professor Barber said the strategy aimed to give every teacher a baseline entitlement to know, understand and use best practice.
The final TES Time For Literacy Conference will be in Birmingham on November 17. Tel 0181 780 9674 for more details.
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