Best is yet to come says maths supremo

21st September 2001 at 01:00
This year's 'disappointing' national test results have not dented Government optimism that 2002 will see targets being exceeded. Julie Henry reports

ONE of the architects of the Government's primary strategy has predicted next year's test results will exceed targets.

Despite this week's "disappointing" scores for 11-year-olds, Anita Straker, former head of the numeracy strategy and now leading the Government's overhaul of secondary education, claims the 2002 results will be the best ever.

She bases her confidence on the performance of pupils, who will sit national tests next year, in optional and special tests set by the Office for Standards in Education and carried out in 300 primary schools.

Ms Straker said: "We have had an increase of 18 per cent over five years in maths. We have reached a plateau but the rise will continue. The evidence is that Years 4 and 5 are better than ever after a solid foundation. There is every likelihood that targets will be reached."

The predictions will be a relief to Education Secretary Estelle Morris who has said she will stand by her predecessor's pledge to resign if the 2002 milestones elude her. Next year 80 per cent of pupils are supposed to make the grade in English and 75 per cent in maths.

This summer the proportion of children who reached the expected level in maths fell by 1 per cent to 71 per cent. English results stalled, with three-quarters of the 600,000 pupils scoring level 4 or above. Despite numerous Government strategies to improve boys' performance, their reading scores slipped by 2 per cent.

The head of testing at the Government's exam watchdog agreed that performance had tailed off. Tim Cornford, of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said: "This year's figures do suggest there might be some levelling off. The last few per cent towards the target are always going to be the most difficult to achieve.

"But we need to remember that a movement of 1 percentage point in either direction could be based on the results of only about 6,000 pupils."

He denied claims by schools in a TES survey earlier this year that a tougher-than-usual test could have accounted for the fall in maths. The level 4 threshold was cut by a mark on evidence that the test was slightly but not significantly harder. The Education Secretary blamed the disappointing results on the variation between authorities.

Ms Morris said: "There is greater disparity this year in the performance of different schools and local education authorities. A number of historically underachieving areas have continued to improve while other LEAs, including some higher-performing areas, have dropped back."

While Telford and Wrekin, Blackburn and Darwen and Rutland had drops of up to 4 per cent, Hammersmith and Fulham and Camden - both in London - had similar-sized improvements.

Some insiders believe that primary schools took their eye off the ball because of the Government's focus on secondary education. But primary heads deny this.

They also dismiss suggestions that some heads, fearful of the all-important 2002 results, moved their best teachers to Year 5 so they would remain with classes for two years and boost next year's scores.

David Hart, National Association of Head Teachers general secretary, said:

"The truth is that we cannot deliver ever-higher results. We need significant new resources to reduce class sizes and recruit specialist teachers. The initial boost is not sustainable otherwise."

He said proposed targets for 2004, - 85 per cent in maths and English, - now looked at risk. The subject that has shown the biggest improvement this year is science, which is national strategy-free.

At age 11 the proportion reaching the expected level rose by 2 per cent, and at 14 the jump was 7 per cent. Maths also improved at KS3.

The concentration on writing at KS2 seems to have paid off with a slight rise overall. But the gender split remains acute, with boys falling back 2 per cent in reading.

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