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Figures that add up to valid goals

Stephen Byers, the schools standards minister, explains how the new system to set targets and improve performance will operate and how the Government intends to keep the paperwork to a minimum.

Target-setting is an important management tool which helps us all focus on raising standards. For schools, it provides measurable objectives to improve pupil performance. It also gives parents and local authorities a clear statement of goals.

The Government has set national targets for higher standards over the lifetime of this Parliament and beyond. For example, the targets for literacy and numeracy at age 11 imply a significant improvement from the current levels of performance. We will only hit these targets if individual schools set and achieve their own targets, which together add up to the improvement we need as a nation.

The next step is to implement the 1997 legislation and introduce target-setting at school level from September 1998. But in doing so, we will not overload teachers. We need to keep the systems simple, so that they can deliver high standards without getting buried in needless paperwork.

The key to this is giving schools the right kind of data to build on. In our White Paper, Excellence in Schools, we set out our plans for providing better data on pupil performance, and especially progress.

For the first time, the secondary school performance tables published last month included an index of improvement, rather than simply a snapshot of achievement. Thus the focus shifted towards the many schools making sustained improvement over the past four years. In subsequent years we will publish value added indicators, to show how far schools are enabling every child to reach his or her full potential.

In January we will publish benchmark data to help schools to set and publish targets annually. This information will link closely with the performance and assessment reports which the Office for Standards in Education will send to each school, giving basic information about the school and its intake.

The benchmarks and performance data will enable schools to compare their performance with that of others with similar intakes. The clear message is that schools can achieve excellent results whatever their circumstances. In the past, poverty has too often been used to excuse low levels of achievement. We have made clear we will not accept this. In the future, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and OFSTED with enhance this information with value-added data, based on pupils' prior attainment.

We believe that schools are responsible for their own improvement. But they also need the support of their local authority, whose task is to challenge schools to raise standards continuously - and to apply pressure where they do not. They should regularly monitor performance and compare results and progress with data from other schools. Under the proposals in the new Bill, each authority will be required to set out how it intends to promote school improvement and the performance targets set by its schools in an education development plan.

OFSTED will also inspect local authorities regularly. We have already announced the first 12 to be inspected from January 1998. To assist both processes, the Department's Standards and Effectiveness Unit will work with OFSTED and the Audit Commission to produce authority profiles - an annual statistical summary of key data on school im-provement. These will be sent to local authorities every January to help them with strategic planning and to prepare their plans.

Headteachers and teachers may be worried about being swamped with masses of information which will not be of use to them. We are taking measures to prevent this. We are working closely with QCA and OFSTED to ensure schools receive only as much information as is both manageable and relevant. We have also set up a group to cut down on bureaucracy and other unnecessary burdens. We are determined to keep the system simple and we will ensure that neither central government nor local authorities introduce complications which can distract schools from their main task - raising standards.

To make the new arrangements work well, local authority officials, headteachers, teachers and governors need to learn how best to interpret the new sources of information. To this end, QCA will be publishing a guidance booklet in the New Year.

We have also recently launched a consultation on the collection, dissemination and use of a common core of pupil level data required to support these initiatives, and the introduction of a unique pupil number to help match performance data on pupils through their school life. Furthermore, our plans for connecting all schools up to the Internet will enable the better use of information and communications technology.

There is a great prize to be gained here: to put the increasingly rich sources of performance information to good use. The systems which we are putting in place should ensure that all the information going to schools is manageable, understandable and useful. By focusing on the progress of individual pupils and schools, the new data will provide a highly effective tool to help teachers achieve sustained improvement in our schools.

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