IMPROVED RESULTS in reading and science were not enough to prevent the Government missing all its national test targets for 14-year-olds.
The proportion of pupils reaching the expected level in writing fell by three percentage points and in maths by one. And a one percentage point overall rise in English was only enough to return it to 2005 levels, after a fall last year.
Heads said very little should be read into what were small changes, but ministers admitted they were disappointed, while the Conservatives accused them of complacency.
John Dunford, the Association of School and College Leaders' general secretary, said: "Very little can or should be read into these small percentage changes. What is important is that the trend is upwards.
"While individual results are helpful to pupils and parents and provide useful information for schools, the national statistics are of very little use."
The Government is hoping a practical guide it published for teachers this week will help get pupils back on track if their progress stalls during key stage 3. The 11 to 14 age group is seen as the toughest to teach. This is when disaffection can set in, particularly among boys.
The Getting Back on Track report analyses performance in 46 schools, selected because of the number of pupils at risk of slow progress during KS3 in one of the three core subjects. "Open-ended activities are difficult with these pupils," a Year 8 maths teacher is quoted as saying. "They keep asking what they should do next."
Ministers set themselves a target of 85 per cent of 14-year-olds reaching the expected level 5 in maths and English tests, with 80 per cent for science. But maths fell to 76 per cent from 77, with science moving up from 72 to 73 per cent and English from 73 to 74 per cent.
The target for 85 per cent of pupils to achieve level 5 in their information technology teacher assessments was also missed with just 74 per cent reaching the level.
This year's results confirm that boys remain a problem. Girls outperformed them in all subjects, with a 13 percentage point gap in reading, writing and overall English.
A report by the Bow Group, the Conservative think-tank, said boys were showing "shocking" levels of underachievement at every stage of education, with the white working class most at risk. It recommended competitive sport and a more practical curriculum as solutions.
There was one bright spot, with the proportion of boys achieving the expected level in reading rising from 59 to 65 per cent.
Jim Knight, the schools minister, said: "Confident literacy skills can help boys succeed in all subjects. We know boys read less than girls. That is why we are funding every secondary school library to acquire new books targeted at teenage boys."
But the proportion of boys achieving the expected level in writing fell by two percentage points to 67 per cent.
* 'Getting Back on Track' report, http:publications.teachernet.gov.ukeOrderingDownloadGetting%20back%20on%2 track%20final.pdf
Making English fun for reluctant readers, page 5
Geoff Barton, page 16