THE sky is the limit for improvements to 11-year-olds' national test scores, the senior civil servant in charge of English schools said this week as results stalled for the fourth year running.
Union leaders accused ministers of sticking too slavishly to targets but Peter Housden said that the Government was as determined as ever to press on.
The provisional results show that 75 per cent of 11-year-olds have reached the expected level 4 in English now unchanged since 2000. In maths, 73 per cent reached the grade, the same proportion as last year.
Mr Housden, director general of the schools directorate at the Department for Education and Skills, said that he could not accept that a plateau had been reached.
"The sky is the limit. We shall continue to press forward. It is important that we restart the momentum of improvement. I don't think you should adopt a number as being some sort of natural ceiling on attainment.
"I could take you to schools which are not in advantaged areas with extraordinary results where the proportion of children reaching level 4 is in the high 90s."
He said that it was a misreading of the Government's primary strategy to suggest that ministers had relaxed the targets by postponing them until 2006 and announcing that they were an expectation.
"We have given schools a chance to recalibrate the targets without shrinking one iota from our determination to hit them. Ministers are just as determined as ever. So are local authorities and schools."
Seven-year-olds' results have also stalled. Eighty four per cent met the expected level 2 in reading. Nine out of 10 children reached level 2 in maths.
Writing scores dropped from 86 per cent to 81 per cent, but the 2003 result includes marks for spelling which were given separately last year.
David Miliband, school standards minister, said: "We don't hide the fact we would like to see faster progress towards the target of 85 per cent of 11-year-olds reaching level 4. The difference between 75 per cent and 85 per cent is about 60,000 young people. We are not willing to give up on those 60,000 young people."
He accepted that new initiatives were not the answer. The Government's measures for next year include a leadership programme with heads being trained to help colleagues in underperforming schools improve results.
There will also be changes to the way children are taught to read.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The Government is in danger of continuing to dig itself into a deeper and deeper hole by carrying on with its slavish adherence to targets. The only way the Government is going to cover what is clearly a highly embarrassing situation of its own making is ending the funding discrimination against primary schools."
Figures obtained by Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, show that the cost of key stage 1, 2 and 3 tests rose from pound;8.2 million in 199798 to pound;27.4m in 200102.