SCHOOLS will be set separate exam targets for pupils in different ethnic groups by the Government in two years if current differences in achievement persist.
The proposal from the Cabinet Office's strategy unit has been approved by the Prime Minister and Education Secretary Charles Clarke. But headteachers' unions are opposed, saying such targets are unnecessary and could be divisive.
A recent report from the unit highlighted a range of programmes helping to close the gap between low-achieving ethnic-minority groups and the white average. But it concluded that schemes such as the Department for Education and Skills' new ethnic-minority achievement strategy, "Aiming High", might not be enough.
It recommended that the results be analysed to see if any ethnic-minority groups were underperforming significantly when compared to white pupils from the same socio-economic backgrounds.
If the new data showed persisting and disproportionate attainment gaps, the DfES would have to "factor ethnicity" into education floor targets from September 2005.
Shamit Saggar, who led the report team, said that the new targets would act as a safety net. Schools would only have them imposed if they had more than a certain number of pupils in an ethnic group - this would prevent a school being judged on the results of only a handful of students.
Dr Saggar said that schools with, say, a significant number of Pakistani children, would get a target solely for them. "Whether that target would be the same as the one for the other pupils, or less challenging, would have to be a political decision," he said.
"If the targets are less challenging there is a danger people would say you were accepting lower standards, but if you make them the same you are open to criticism that you are being unrealistic."
Professor David Gillborn, of London University's Institute of Education, who has been researching the comparative performance of ethnic groups, predicted the targets would almost certainly be introduced because of clear gaps in attainment between white, African-Caribbean and Pakistani students.
However, a DfES spokeswoman said that the strategies in place should improve the exam performance of lower-achieving groups - making separate targets unnecessary. "We want to raise standards for everyone - setting a lower target for an ethnic group would denote a lower standard and undermine the point of excellence across the board," she said.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "I cannot imagine a single headteacher in the country who needs to be told that they must take action if children from ethnic minorities are underachieving. It is another example of the nanny state."
* Black and Asian people are half as likely to be school governors as whites, even though their involvement in schools is seen as key to raising the achievement of ethnic-minority children, according to a report by Ten, the local government education network.