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Targets practice

The Government's School Improvement Programme seemed to twitch abruptly into life this week with a cacophony of mixed messages and initiatives. In the space of two days, a seminal document on target-setting for schools was published; 23 projects to put it into practice were announced; the first of six conferences that are supposed to launch "a major national debate about pedagogy" took place; a new "expert teacher" grade was mooted; and benchmarks for successful primary schooling were promised.

Launched last May with an eclectic advisory group and a designer logo, the School Improvement Programme's laudable purpose is, as Gillian Shephard put it this week, to see that "in every LEA, in every school and in every classroom real improvement takes place". To achieve this the Education and Employment Secretary has set in train what she calls "action on a broad front", though others might describe it as rebadging a wide range of projects and enquiries - everything from performance tables to qualifications for heads - so that they appear to coalesce into a coherent strategy.

On the positive side, there are welcome features. Mrs Shephard manages to emphasise the fact that better schools need better teaching and better leadership without rubbishing present efforts and demoralising those already working hard for improvement. One or two of the figureheads involved in her "broad front" could learn this important leadership skill.

Anthea Millett, fronting the first of the Teacher Training Agency's "Teachers Make a Difference" conferences, also showed she understands the importance of teacher morale and the temperate discussion of teaching methods if schools are to be improved. Good teaching is what makes the greatest difference to children's learning, she acknowledged. And in defining a good teacher, she laid as much emphasis on commitment, liking the job and being proud of the profession as on high expectations and the knowledge and skills to deliver the curriculum.

Not that Mrs Shephard's "powerful partnership" for improvement consists simply of Government quangos; it also explicitly includes local authorities and schools, she made clear this week. Many of her schemes for raising standards require organisation and administration on a scale that only LEAs can provide if all schools are to be covered.

So plenty of good ideas have been herded into the Improving Schools corral. Among them are the grants announced last May to help schools effect their post-inspection action plans. But like several of this week's initiatives, they really amount to a new set of priorities for Grants for Education Support and Training rather than new investment. Shifting the deckchairs is an economical way of showing the Government to be tackling problems, whatever the real impact of such limited support or the effect of its withdrawal elsewhere, but it is more gesture than GEST.

In contrast, the survey of good practice in setting targets for pupil attainment published this week under the Improving Schools logo is a gem; a real piece of Department for Education and Employment added value, like the school improvement unit's earlier work on benchmarking . With its real-life examples of how named schools first made higher expectations more explicit and then set about achieving them, it should become both an inspiration and a practical guide to others treading similar paths. And it shows that those with the real answers are not at the Office for Standards in Education or the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority or the TTA, but in schools.

The review of appraisal and the steps the TTA is taking to distinguish an expert grade of teacher to recognise those who excel in the classroom (page 8) are equally worthwhile pursuits, though it is doubtful whether it has helped to bundle all these things together this week and risk sounding like yet another great Government-inspired upheaval for the profession.

The admirable idea of a debate on teaching methods for each of the four key stages, meanwhile, has become diverted by questions about the relationship between expert teachers and performance pay and by the Minister's need to have something to announce that sounds new and hard-edged.

Gillian Shephard and Robin Squire are doing a good job in highlighting both the means and the ends of raising standards, as is the Opposition, having fished the same pool. But there are no instant solutions and schools ultimately have to be given space to test these ideas and work out their own priorities, plans and staff development.

Governments and local authorities can provide the framework of support and training. But only schools can improve schools and the pundits need to ensure their enthusiasm for that process does not make schools' task more difficult than it is.

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