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Hitting the target but missing the point

I HESITATED before using the Great Dome Disaster as a metaphor for education.

Then I saw something to confirm my first instincts. There are lessons there.

The first is that if your criteria for success are the ability to hit targets and to keep within budget, then that is what you will get. You open on time, but where is the futuristic fizz? If you truly want an inspired event, opening windows wide into the future, you back someone to run the show who can make a deal with the visionaries.

Faith was one zone where it went wrong, watered down to avoid controversy and cut costs under the old regime, and now due for a revamp because it is too dull. Maybe it could have illuminated religious and racial understanding, but the Disney touch is no more likely than bland target-setting to do anything so creative or educational.

Which brings me back to schools. Last week I read a letter to primary heads from a shire county chief adviser. It was about next year's key stage 2 maths and English targets and he was clearly nervous about his reception. The first paragraph about mathematics raised no hackles. He thanked them all for setting targets in line with what the Department for Education and Employment wants.

English was more challenging. In spite of "excellent progress", target figures submitted turned out - shock, horror - to add up to a figure 5 per cent below DFEE expectations. Even if they managed to negotiate the target down to a rock-bottom 3 per cent, that would mean in practice that another 150 pupils would have to be found to aim at level 4.

Of course it was the quality and impact of school strategies that mattered for the parents and children ... targets very demanding ... no blame attached for failing ... help offered to placate governors or parents who failed to recognise the nature of the enterprise .... But if every school with a cohort of more than 10 pupils added one more to their target, they could close the gp.

So would they all please sign and return the attached slip re Statutory Key Stage 2 English Targets 2001, by Friday: "I confirm that I will add one further pupil to the numbers targeted for level 4 in English." This is indeed the language of the bean-counter, the accountant or the sales manager: "I confirm that I will try your wonderful new product. I understand that I may return if dissatisfied at my own expense, and meanwhile enclose a completed direct debit form."

It is not the language of education. However much we support David Blunkett's determination to raise standards throughout every classroom, his political imperative is evidently being pushed down the line so ruthlessly to local officials that the pressure is tipping some of them over the edge. Is it happening everywhere?

Some children will sail through to level 4, some will never make it in time, others might with hard work and support. Some of the brightest children may move out of the village, or be replaced by others with special needs, in line with the Education Secretary's own entirely laudable inclusion policies. All these factors will already have been considered, case by case, by the heads of small rural schools (migration affects them too), and confirmed by their governors.

Does it make it better that the authority is offering support from inspectors and consultants for the newly targeted pupils? It's just like the GCSE league table pressure to scramble borderline candidates into C-grades, but now we are talking about cramming 10-year-olds for their county.

The literacy and numeracy strategies are making a difference. Targets do concentrate the mind and the effort. But this latest hard sell is the nightmare scenario for children who need space in their school lives for creativity, imagination and personal growth. You can hit your targets, and still miss the whole point of the operation.

Patricia Rowan is a former editor of The TES.

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