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Labour's targets remain hard to hit

The Government's literacy targets are still a distant dream for many education authorities, despite the improvements revealed in this week's primary school performance tables.

David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, wants 80 per cent of 11-year-olds to achieve the standard expected for their age by 2002. He has also set individual targets for each authority.

Virtually all authorities have improved upon their 1996 year's key stage 2 test results in English, maths and science. But for many, the rate of improvement, if maintained, is not enough to meet the Government's national target.

The individual targets are also problematic. Higher and middle-ranking authorities - with targets in excess of 80 per cent - may find it hard to improve significantly on their already good results.

Richmond-upon-Thames, Stockport, Solihull, Kingston upon Thames, Cambridgeshire, Trafford, Bournemouth, North Tyneside, Kent and Poole in Dorset improved their literacy scores by about 3 per cent - not sufficient, if sustained, to meet their individual targets.

North Tyneside - which includes education minister Stephen Byers' constituency - needs to improve by nearly 5 percentage points each year if it is to meet its target of 86 per cent. This year its score rose by 1.8 percentage points.

Pat Jefferson, North Tyneside's head of school services, said it was working with schools on a number of fronts - including training on target setting and literacy schemes.

But she wants the Government to support education authorities as a critical friend.

"We need a critical friend as much as any school does," said Mrs Jefferson. "If the tools are all in place, we have got a good chance of hitting these ambitious targets. But it is going to be a hell of a pace."

In Kent, schools have to improve its literacy results 22 percentage points if it is to reach its target by 2002 - this year they rose by 2 percentage points.

The county is working with schools on target setting, bench-marking, and other initiatives. But Mike Aylen, principal primary adviser, said improving standards depended on schools and teachers taking ownership of the process.

The Corporation of London's single school registered the biggest improvement on last year's test results, helping the local authority to the top of the tables.

The tiny county of Rutland - population 34,600 - took second place less than a year after being reborn as an authority. Its 18 primaries have already exceeded national literacy and numeracy targets, and are only 11 percentage points away from the authority's own target of 90 per cent.

Carol Chambers, the school effectiveness officer, concedes the authority cannot claim the credit for Rutland's success this year - but says its small size will stand it in good stead. "Authorities do make a difference, and as a small one we can make a difference more quickly and more effectively," she said.

Local government reorganisation has also contributed to Buckinghamshire's meteoric rise up the tables. Other county authorities such as Hampshire have benefited from losing urban areas - in its case Portsmouth and Southampton.

Those two cities have joined a bottom-of-the-table cluster of authorities serving deprived urban areas, which includes the London boroughs of Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney.

With literacy targets of 70 per cent, all of them improved on last year's results.

In low-ranked Sandwell, in the West Midlands, principal education officer Malcolm Robertson sees this year's tables as an improvement on 1996 - if only because they allow schools to see that they have actually done better.

"It gives teachers and staff encouragement to see you have got a long way to go, but that you are improving," he said.

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