Caught in a targets trap

24th January 2003 at 00:00
"What does it take to reform something as large as a national education system?" This is the question at the heart of the final report from Canadian researchers on the national literacy and numeracy strategies. It must also have been asked by ministers and standards gurus when they embarked on this huge and unprecedented project.

According to the Government-commissioned University of Toronto team, ministers were right to set targets. They helped gear up the system and get it chugging down the right track. But these high-profile targets have served their purpose and are becoming counterproductive. The emphasis should now be on consolidation and professional development, with a much wider range of measures by which to judge progress, the report suggests.

This conclusion must have been known to junior minister Stephen Twigg and his colleagues when he wrote to all primary heads this month pressing them to do more cramming for the national tests. His circular has stung the usually reticent primary community into outrage, represented on TES letters (p30). Not surprisingly, writers accuse the Government of confusing targets with real education.

Labour has much to be proud of in the implementation of the strategies.

They provided schools and local authorities with substantial support, and brought about a sea change in a very short period - only five years. The heavy central direction of the first few years is now yielding gradually to local expertise, and there is a greater sense of ownership in schools. To a large extent the strategies have won hearts and minds.

Why are they jeopardising this by bullying heads and teachers? It takes a lot to get primary staff to speak out. When they do, the Government should take them seriously. Labour needs to broaden its thinking about targets, to include schools' own goals and more dimensions, as the Toronto team suggests.

Education ministers are caught in a targets trap. The Government has chosen to assess its success, and allocate funding, based on narrow and specific measures. Stephen Twigg's letter to heads was really meant for the Treasury.

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