Determined to raise the flag after task force launches

12th September 1997 at 01:00
The Government's central pledge to raise school standards is to be redeemed with a raft of initiatives and targets by which the success of its first term of office will be measured.

At national level, Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett has already launched a fleet of task forces. There is a task force on standards, drawing together academics and practitioners to develop effective school improvement strategies and a task force on numeracy, which is expected to produce an interim report by the end of November.

The literacy task force, led by Michael Barber, now head of the standards and effectiveness unit at the Department for Education and Employment, did much of its work before the election and is responsible for plans to introduce a literacy hour in primary schools and the exhortation to parents to spend 20 minutes a day reading with their children.

The stated intention is to raise to 80 per cent (from 56 per cent in 1996) the proportion of 11-year-olds achieving at the appropriate level and to raise to 75 per cent (from 53 per cent in 1996) the proportion achieving an acceptable level in maths by the year 2002.

However, the new culture of targets may only begin to dawn in schools this autumn, when heads will be faced with the job of setting goals to boost test and GCSE results. Primary schools will receive data on the results achieved by seven and 11-year-olds with information about social class. Secondaries will get equivalent information on test results for 14-year-olds.

From next year schools will be required by law to set their expected level of improvement and inform parents of the target and how that compares with results from similar schools. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is to provide the software required to interpret the data, but there are fears that small schools in particular may lack the expertise to deal with the information.

As part of the grand design, local education authorities will be required to monitor the targets set by schools to ensure they are "challenging". They will also have to set their own targets for the rate of improvement across the area.

The final education plan will be held by the DFEE's standards and effectiveness unit and ministers will have the power to impose "challenging" targets where it is considered that local authorities are not being ambitious enough.

On the literacy front, another 200 consultants are to be recruited to provide assistance and information on the teaching of reading in an additional 8,000 primary schools.

Ministers remain keen to involve parents through home-school contracts, but have decided not to make such agreements a legal requirement.

The problem for politicians is that there are no instant ways of raising standards in schools and no guarantee that national targets can be hit. The view taken by Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, is that there are no miracle cures.

"There are specific problems such as the low achievement of boys and the relative underachievement among children from deprived social groups. There is also a particular problem in the teaching of number skills in maths.

"My own view is that there are no magic solutions. All you can do is chip away on a fairly wide range of fronts, which is what the Government is doing, " he says.

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