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Targets reset to bridge social divide

Ministers demand more consistent progress in every pupil's results

SCHOOL TARGETS are being changed to ensure schools do more to narrow the gap between social classes. The new targets aim to ensure schools focus on all pupils, not just those who are borderline.

Primaries and secondaries will now have to set targets based on the proportion of children progressing across two levels within four years.

Talks between local authorities, national strategy advisers and heads begin this month. Schools must set their 2009 targets by the end of December. The national target percentage will be announced later.

Guidance sent to local authorities says the new progress targets will "help tackle the variance and uneven performance that are a feature of the current system". It says all pupils should make at least two levels of progress between Year 2 and Year 6.

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, called for a debate on target-setting. He said: "The worst thing is to repeat the old mistakes, where unachievable, aspirational targets were set which placed enormous strain on the system and meant schools teaching to the test."

As well as progress tests, the separate English and maths targets will be merged into one goal. This year, 71 per cent of pupils reached level 4 in both subjects.

Government predictions for 2009 show that it expects the percentage of 11 year-olds reaching level 4 in English to have risen to 84 per cent, but maths to have fallen back to 74 per cent.

Under the new regime, this would mean 69 per cent of pupils gaining level 4 in both subjects.

Pete Dudley, head of the Primary National Strategy, said: "We welcome the joint focus on literacy and numeracy and the emphasis on progression because it will help to close the gap while continuing to keep up aspirations across the board and also acknowledge the progress of a wider range of children."

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "We should have high expectations but if combining the targets means some children feel like failures, that is counterproductive. Potentially, a very bright child who does not succeed in English because he is dyslexic could get a level 5 in maths but a level 3 in English and on that basis doesn't count any more."

Professor John Stannard, former director of the National Literacy Strategy and co-author of The Literacy Game, said: "Targets are a very blunt instrument. To make a difference to the amalgamated target, schools need to work on maths, but the thing that will make a real difference is lifting writing results.

"That, to me, makes a case for a separate writing target. The danger in combining results is that schools and local authorities lose focus."

A similar regime will be adopted at key stage 3, where a combined target for English and maths scores at level 5 will be set instead of the current separate targets, but separate progress targets will be set. A separate target will remain for science, but there will be no ICT targets.

The present KS2 targets are for 85 per cent of pupils to reach level 4 in English and the same in maths by 2008. This year, 80 per cent of pupils reached level 4 in English and 77 per cent did so in maths.

At KS3, the Government wanted 85 per cent of 14-year-olds to achieve level 5 in English, maths and ICT, with 80 per cent in science this year. Instead, 74 per cent reached level 5 in English, 76 per cent in maths, 74 per cent in ICT and 73 per cent in science.

A new report from the Child Poverty Action Group, 'Chicken and Egg: Child Poverty and Educational Inequality', shows that poor pupils fall further behind their peers at every stage of schooling. It also shows that children who start behind but are not affected by poverty have better chances of catching up.

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All of the Year 6 pupils at St Lawrence CE primary in Alton, Hampshire, last year reached level 4 in maths. But head Nigel Utton is still contesting the English results.

His experience makes him wary of the new progress targets, which will depend on children being assessed at 7 and 11. He said: "Assessing children is not an exact science."

And there is a bigger issue at stake. Mr Utton, who is also chairman of the inclusive education group Heading to Inclusion, said: "Schools end up playing a target-setting game rather than educating children because ultimately your job is on the line. It's sad. Changing the targets is tinkering around the edges when we need fundamental change.

"Reading and writing are wonderful tools, but they are not an end in themselves. What ought to be at the core of the primary curriculum is creativity and social education."

Photograph: Andrew Hasson

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