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Ministers' targets regime lies 'in tatters'

Schools forced to set 'unachievable' levels for their pupils as central and local government demand improvements. Helen Ward reports on results of a TES survey.

MORE than half of primary headteachers say they have been put under pressure to set unrealistic targets for 11-year-olds.

A poll of 400 heads in England for The TES found one in three has to meet achievement targets they believe will not be reached. Many others appear to have resisted pressure from local education authorities to set targets they consider to be unachievable.

The pressure seems to have been felt most strongly by younger, less experienced heads, who were most likely to believe that their targets would not be met.

The findings will heighten the concern among heads and local government leaders about ministers' decision to ratchet up key stage 2 targets, despite failing to achieve last year's goals of 80 per cent of 11-year-olds achieving level 4 in English and 75 per cent in maths.

In January, many primary heads reacted with fury to a letter sent by schools minister Stephen Twigg urging them to do more to prepare for this year's national tests, due to start on May 12. Critics claimed the Government was more concerned with meeting targets than raising standards and did not care how the results were achieved.

The Government sets targets for all LEAs. School governors, in consultation with heads, are required by law to set their own targets. LEAs have to ensure that the two coincide. They have powers to intervene in schools which miss their targets. All schools had to set targets for 2004 by last December.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "Local authorities interfere frequently and seek to impose their targets on schools. If a third of heads are setting targets which are unachievable, the target-setting agenda is in tatters."

Significantly, in Wales, where schools are given more flexibility, 90 per cent of the heads polled expect to achieve their targets.

Although government guidance in England states that it is schools which set targets, it adds that: "every school should also play its part in helping to meet the target agreed for the local education authority as a whole".

LEAs are also under pressure and some have already acknowledged they are faced with targets they cannot possibly meet.

Sid Willcocks, head of the Epiphany school in Bournemouth, will be calling for a joint push from the NAHT and the Local Government Association to resist ministerial target-setting, at the union's conference this weekend.

He said: "We feel local government is being pressured by central government to impose unworkable targets on schools, and it shouldn't be up to local authorities to do that."

In almost half the 150 English authorities, 2002 test results lag behind their 2004 targets by at least 10 percentage points in either English or maths.

This compares with a national picture where results in English have stayed static for three years and risen by 1 per cent in maths.

Last year, Cornwall stood alone in refusing to set government-imposed targets which it said were unattainable. The authority managed to argue a small drop in its targets, but the then education director, Jonathan Harris, resigned saying: "I think it would have been both dishonest and demotivating to schools to have agreed such ill-considered figures."

Jane Phillips, chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, said: "The whole top-down from government target-setting agenda has fallen into disrepute."

Target creativity, 20 - 24

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