THE performance of the nation's 11-year-olds in national curriculum mathematics tests is set to take a giant leap forward this year - and English and science results will not be far behind.
A TES survey has revealed local authorities routinely reporting 10 per cent age point improvements in the proportion of pupils reaching expected standards in maths and science, and 6 point improvements in English.
This follows last year's setback which saw English improve by only two percentage points while maths actually fell by three points.
This year's results, due to be confirmed next month, may be enough to put the Government back on track in its bid to have 80 per cent of 11-year-olds reaching the expected standard (level 4) in English, and 75 per cent in maths, by 2002.
Local authorities were this week given their provisional key stage 2 results for the 1999 tests by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
Forty authorities spoken to by The TES reported an average increase of 11 points in the proportion of pupils reaching the expected level in maths, a nine point improvement in science and a six-point rise in English.
None of the authorities reported a downturn in any of their results this year and, in maths, all results were up by at least 6 points. Government sources suggest that improvements of between 5 and 6 per cent age points in English were expected when the results are formally analysed, and between seven and eight points in maths.
The Government needs maths and English results to improve by four points a year in order to hit its targets.
Education officials across the country were putting this year's improvements down to a combination of hard work by teachers and pupils, the introduction of the literacy hour and a greater familiarity with the tests' requirements, particularly in maths, where mental arithmetic was introduced for the first time last year.
John Gaskin, senior education officer in Portsmouth, which has seen the maths performance of its schools climb 13 points to 65 per cent, said: "I think a major factor has been schools analysing their performance in previous years' tests, looking at areas of weakness, and then making very definite plans to address those asp-ects through teaching."
Paul Crosby, a research officer at Northamptonshire Council, said that schools had questioned whether the tests were in fact getting easier, after some pupils had performed better than expected.
But he added: "We have no evidence the tests are getting easier. A lot of more focused work is going on in schools, and it is paying off."
Alan Smithers, professor of education at the University of Liverpool, said that, despite the improvements, the targets for 2002 would prove difficult to achieve.
He said: "Whereas individual schools can achieve the targets because of particular intakes, when you aggregate the targets across all 11-year-olds, it is clear they are very challenging."
Additional reporting by Lucy Bowen.