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Heads aiming at test targets

At last week's National Association of Head Teachers' annual conference, NAHT council member David Pratt likened the Government's target-setting exercise to a blind javelin-thrower: "He seldom hit the target but by God he kept everyone on their toes." The new minister, David Miliband, was left in no doubt on his first outing that targets were among heads' main complaints, along with funding, workload and bureaucracy. Many headteachers - and a few education authorities - are openly rejecting these diktats from above.

But there may be good news from this year's round of national tests if the sample of schools questioned by The TES (page 3) proves to be typical. At key stage 2 the combined estimates of these schools suggest they have improved on last year's results, perhaps by 2 to 3 per cent - despite the widespread impression that the English and maths tests were particularly demanding this year.

True, this also represents a shortfall on the Government's targets for 2002 of 2 to 3 per cent. But if this is reproduced nationally, it ought to hearten both schools and Government after last year when English results were static and maths slipped back a point. As those who have studied school improvement point out, making measured gains is hard. But sustaining them is even harder. So it is a cause for real rejoicing if results really are rising again.

Ministers are bound to keep up the pressure on schools, nevertheless. As Estelle Morris said earlier this year, she would rather aim too high and miss than set expectations too low. If she is to persuade the Chancellor to invest more in education, she needs to be able to demonstrate clear returns.

But heads are right to temper those political ambitions with professional realism and to treat targets as aims not edicts. They know they cannot perform miracles - particularly if they do not have enough able and stable staff, or parental support.

And above all else, headteachers have a legal duty to ensure children get a broad and balanced education, not one distorted by constant drilling in the narrow skills required to pass tests.

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