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Targets that miss the point

Primary test scores in English over the past four years show that pupils' results have reached a plateau. Is there a way forward? Helen Ward reports

Can you use adventurous vocabulary, produce lively and thoughtful writing? Is your handwriting fluent? If you can answer yes to the above, then you have the "expected" ability in English for an 11-year-old and would achieve level 4 of the national curriculum.

Anyone answering no would join the 157,500 pupils who reached level 3 or below last year - children who feel they have failed.

In the past four years, a more or less uniform proportion of 11-year-olds have "failed" in the annual tests and thus generated much anxiety in Westminster.

But is such concern justified? After all, children are not noticeably taller than four years ago, so why worry about a plateau in their ability to use adventurous vocabulary?

The main source of concern is that between 1997 and 2000 there was a spectacular improvement in English results - a spurt which stopped frustratingly short of the Government's 2002 target of 80 per cent.

In 1996, just 58 per cent of 11-year-olds reached level 4 in English, and 54 per cent in maths.

That spring, the first of 400 schools began a trial of the four-part literacy hour as part of the National Literacy Project. And when Labour came to office, the project went national.

Then, in September 2000, with a general election looming, the then education secretary David Blunkett announced unprecedented key stage 2 results - 75 per cent of pupils were reaching level 4 in English, 72 per cent in maths. Teachers and pupils were on track to reach the targets, he said. But it did not happen.

So, the big question: are 11-year-olds' test scores stuck at around 75 per cent or can they be improved?

Stephen Twigg, the minister responsible for primary education, concedes that some pupils will not achieve level 4, but denies that the figure "needs to be 25 per cent or anything approaching 25 per cent". He adds: "I don't think it was obvious there was going to be a plateau, nor do I think there is anything given or inevitable about the plateau continuing."

Some experts disagree. They say the improvement in results was not quite as spectacular as it seemed and that it was the result of "teaching to the test". The subsequent plateau is therefore not surprising, they argue.

Professor Peter Tymms, of Durham university, says: "I have taken quite a lot of data from different people's analyses and it is clear that to a large extent the rise we saw was illusory."

His research, shrugged off by ministers, used the same reading tests on 5,000 Year 6 pupils each year and found no change between 1997 and 2002.

High-stakes testing, he said, had caused teachers to teach to the test and examiners to give the borderline cases the benefit of the doubt. Dr Bill Boyle, director of the centre for formative assessment studies at Manchester university, agrees.

"We are used to it when teachers practise A-level tests with students," he says. "It is horrendous that those practices are now being used at the ages of seven and 11.

"Preparing children for tests is not real learning and you can only move children so far with practice - until you reach your plateau."

Teachers are frank about the methods they use to push up their pupils'

results. Adele Ewan, 30, a Year 6 teacher at Calton junior school, Gloucester, praised for its creative curriculum, says: "In the spring term, I drop design and technology, music and religious studies. When you need to get through four years' work, it's just bang, bang, bang all the time.

"Because of the tests, I sometimes focus on children who might reach level 4 with a little boost. My ideal would be that all children get the same amount of time.

"But coming up to the tests I spend three days a week with the booster children. I sit with them because they're the ones who increase the results. How awful is that? How can I live with myself knowing that?"

Mr Blunkett attributed the improvements to the literacy hour, better teaching and better leadership, and the Office for Standards in Education agreed.

But recently doubts have crept in. Ofsted has reported that schools are devoting more time to the core subjects - English, maths and science - and repeatedly warned ministers of the dangers of a curriculum which squeezes out the arts and humanities.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy (Pirls) study found that English 10-year-olds were ranked third out of 35 countries, but it also found more children in England disliked reading than in any other country except the Netherlands.

Last year, the Government gave pound;42 million to schools to spend on booster classes for children on the cusp, yet the percentage achieving level 4 remained the same. The target for 2006 is an 85 per cent success rate in English and maths.

Now, with results static, teachers mutinous and children bored, ministers want a new approach.

In May last year, the primary strategy Excellence and Enjoyment was unveiled. It builds on a timely Ofsted report which found that a rich curriculum can boost opportunities in English and maths, neatly fitting both schools and ministers' agendas.

The primary strategy says that achieving level 4 in English and maths is still the top priority. But the pressure of targets will be eased and teacher assessment piloted for seven-year-olds. A consultant leadership programme will also be introduced.

Will it work? Colin Richards, professor of education at Lancaster university, believes it could.

"I'm very much in favour of the emphasis of the primary strategy," he says.

"I think the Government has got it right - except that it will be threatened while Ofsted and performance tables stress the tested subjects.

If teachers were freer to engage with the primary strategy, test results would probably continue to improve."

But Professor Michael Fullan of Toronto university, who carried out the external evaluation of the literacy and numeracy strategies, believes educationists must look beyond the school gates if progress is to be made.

"There are still 25 per cent of children who do not reach level 4," he says. "Right now the approach seems to be 'try harder' or 'do similar things somewhat differently'. But no matter what schools do, it may not be enough.

"The relationship between socio-economic status and educational achievement remains high and is the most stable relationship in educational research.

Perhaps out-of-school influences on attainment deserve more attention."

Figures released by the Department for Education and Skills last month show that in 2003, 54 per cent of pupils claiming free school meals reached level 4 in English, compared with 79 per cent of those from wealthier backgrounds.

A huge government-backed research project, Effective provision of early education, suggests the impact of poverty can be reduced if high-quality education is provided early enough.

To return to a previous analogy, perhaps a government target for pupil height would be absurd in that a broad change cannot be seen. Yet it is a fact that in the past 150 years, Europeans have become on average 20 centimetres taller due to improvements in diet, medicine and the environment.

Labour's is a long-term goal: to eliminate child poverty by 2020. This seems a far cry from its literacy and numeracy targets, but in the long run it could be just what is needed.

See Wonder years, a 24-page supplement in this week's tes

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