Goals should not be safe

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
April is the cruellest month according to Eliot, but August is also now pretty brutal. Exam and test results have become even more high-stakes for both teachers and taught. And the futures of education ministers now also depend upon school - or exam board - performance.

In the early years of a government ministers can afford to join in the ritual incantations about standards not being standard enough or too few or too many candidates achieving them. But after six years of asserting central control over what schools should or shouldn't be doing and inviting us to judge it according to exam and test targets, these results are now as much a test of government as of schools' performance. August's killing fields used to be the grouse moors. After last year's A-level debacle, some in the media clearly now regard it as a chance to bag a minister.

It may not be much comfort to schools now contemplating disappointing GCSE or SATs results, but the events which ended in the resignation of Estelle Morris underlined an important truth. The Government, rather than schools, now tends to be held responsible for perceived shortcomings.

By raising last year's hue and cry over A-level marking on behalf of their students, heads repositioned themselves as champions of the consumer - ground that governments had sought to occupy since the 1980s. Ministers, and their regulating agency, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, found themselves cast as the producer interest.

Heads have subsequently enjoyed similar public credibility in the school funding crisis. Ministers struggled in vain to lay the blame on perfidious education authorities or naive financial management in schools. The Government will be held responsible if heads are forced to send children home this autumn.

So what about those missed targets - the school as well as the Government ones? The underlying trend is continuing improvement. So congratulations are due, not recriminations. Goals should be challenging - not safe.

Ministers, like teachers, are right to reach for the sky, even if this means risking professional or political discomfort.

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