Schools will be expected to set "realistic yet challenging" targets to improve pupils' performance when new regulations take effect next September, according to a booklet sent to schools this week.
From Targets to Action, produced by the Government's standards and effectiveness unit, says many headteachers have found target-setting a useful tool for involving pupils, parents and staff in raising standards.
The 32-page booklet, based on research by several local authorities and schools, explains why setting objectives for pupils is important and how they can be decided.
In the foreword school standards minister Stephen Byers says it is the first in a series to support schools and local authorities in the national drive to raise standards.
"I am convinced that by making available to all schools examples of some of the best work, we can inspire and support you in improving the quality of education for our children," he says.
Ministers hope to encourage an already growing use of performance targets in schools and see their strategy as building on policies already adopted under the previous government. All schools will be required to adopt target-setting plans from September next year under the Conservatives' 1997 Education Act.
The present Government's strategy is to link national objectives with plans drawn up by local authorities after discussions with their schools, and using Pounds 50million of government grants in a carrot-and-stick approach. Ministers warn that any authorities failing to draw up targets risk losing their share of the Standards Fund, formerly the Grants for Educational Support and Training.
National targets already announced are for 80 per cent of 11-year-olds to reach Level 4 in English by the year 2002 and for 75 per cent to reach Level 4 in maths.
Further targets for secondary-aged children are now being considered and will be announced shortly.
The booklet explains that heads and governors will be able to draw on "benchmarks" - information due to be published soon on how well similar schools are performing - to decide their targets.
A "five-stage cycle of school improvement" describes how targets can be set, monitored and reviewed as part of a two or three-year development plan.
By helping staff to understand the value of the policy and involving them fully, the right climate can be set for arriving at targets which are challenging enough to raise expectations but realistically achievable, the booklet says.
Under the Government's plans enforceable target-setting will only apply to the core subjects of English, maths and science, although schools will be encouraged to adopt targets for other subjects and even in such areas as attendance and participation in after-school activities.
But ministers are also aware of the danger of target-setting becoming bureaucratic. From Targets to Action says headteachers will be responsible fortarget-setting, while governors should help create a "positive climate", monitor the process and report annually to parents. "Everyone should work together to keep the process as free as possible from unnecessary bureaucracy, " it says.