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Proven practice with a good track record

Whatever the political benefits of this week's target-setting initiative, it is not a stick for beating local education authorities.

Far from it: LEAs have been at the forefront of persuading schools to set clear academic goals and devise strategies to meet them, as the Government's own publications acknowledge.

The Secondary Heads Association, too, have been pushing for programmes of school "self-evaluation" - with internal target setting as a key element.

Surrey, Suffolk, Birmingham and Nottinghamshire councils were all quoted approvingly in the Government's recent publication, Setting targets to raise standards: a survey of good practice.

According to the Association of Metropolitan Authorities there are very few schools or LEAs which do not engage in something of the sort. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has gone so far as to say that the new national scheme is unworkable without LEA involvement.

In Birmingham, for example, schools are given authority-wide "benchmarks" , or guidance about the sort of achievement that might be expected in their GCSE and national curriculum results.

It is then up to each individual school to set not one but two targets for itself: one "modest", the other "ambitious". To support them in this, the 450 schools have been put into what the authority calls "families" - groups sharing similar social profiles. The schools are in touch with each other and, according to the LEA, make efforts to share information about means of improvement.

Newham in east London has been setting LEA targets since 1989 for GCSE results, a strategy which, it says, has seen year-on-year improvements. This year, for the first time, primary schools were asked to identify goals for achievement in their national test results.

All schools receive sets of centrally produced analyses giving information about social as well as academic factors: the proportion of free school meals, or the number of children not speaking English as a first language, for example. And with this in mind, they are asked to determine their future progress.

Beyond that, targets are defined for individual subject departments and individual pupils.

"It has prompted a much sharper focus on the part of schools," said the borough's head of inspection, David Lister. "There are spin-offs as well. If they're not reaching their targets, they look for reasons why. It may be that they need some in-service training, for example."

He praised the Government's initiative. "A national policy will help. it will enable better comparison between LEAs."

The Grove junior school in Handsworth, Birmingham, has been setting its own targets for the past five years - an initiative pre-dating the local education authority's involvement.

Handsworth is not a privileged area; 97 per cent of the pupils are from ethnic-minority backgrounds. Last year, four of the schools' pupils took GCSE and gained good grades. This was part of the school's focus on individual children of high ability, and featured in the Department for Education and Employment document.

At a more general level, the school had decided to tackle spelling. It introduced daily tests and specifically directed homework to produce improvements.

The head, David Winkley, praised the general thrust of this week's announcement, but warned that target-setting must be presented as a positive development. "The danger of this kind of central initiative is that teachers will feel wholly disenfranchised," he said.

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