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Next target must be to close gap

Jane Davidson's casual dismissal of the education improvement targets that the Assembly government has failed to meet smacks of Orwellian "newspeak".

After five years of failing to check if the ones she inherited were "fit for purpose", her government has honed them down to "those we think are the right ones".

There is some merit in the minister for education, lifelong learning and skills' argument that the original targets were unrealistic - but little excuse for waiting five years until they were missed to change them.

Nor is there much solace to be found in the continuing achievement gap compared with England.

Many Welsh parents will be disappointed that despite the devolution of most education powers to Wales and falling poverty rates, achievement levels still fall worryingly short of those across the border. The gap is four percentage points and has been widening since 2001 among pupils gaining five A*-C grade GCSEs (52 per cent in Wales compared with 56 per cent in England). Among pupils gaining five A*-Gs, the gap is just as wide (85 per cent compared with 89 per cent), though it has narrowed slightly in the same period.

The government has several solid accomplishments to be proud of - reducing infant and junior class sizes to 30 pupils maximum, providing free nursery places for three-year-olds, introducing the Welsh baccalaureate and piloting Welsh sabbaticals for teachers.

But it is only belatedly heeding the lessons in England and other countries that intense investment is needed in schools catering for disadvantaged pupils if the tail of underachievement is to be tackled.

This is a welcome change of direction. The Raise initiative will target many of the pupils most in need of extra support, much as England's Excellence in Cities initiative seeks to do. Should other English policies be reconsidered -specialist schools, performance tables?

If the missed targets are to be forgotten, real progress will have to be made in closing the gap with England in the coming years.

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