Government admits targets 'too high'

6th July 2001 at 01:00
Anger brews over 'unreasonable' maths and English primary school targets. Karen Thornton reports.

Teachers were deliberately set "unreasonable" targets for improving maths and English among primary pupils, a senior civil servant has revealed.

Chris Wells, head of the Department for Education and Skills' special educational needs section, said: "Part of the primary strategy was to make targets unreasonable, to set targets for literacy and numeracy that were generally stretching for the education system.

"No one knows if those failing to get five good GCSE passes or level four in national tests at 11 are low-achievers or under-achievers. I agree it's an unreasonable expectation but at least we are prepared to go the last mileI otherwise pupils will never achieve their full potential," he told delegates at the National Association of Emotional and Behavioural Difficulty Schools' annual conference in Newport Pagnell.

Mr Wells is leaving the DFES in October for a two-year secondment to Greenwich education authority as assistant director. He told the conference that the present targets - 80 per cent of 11 year olds at the required standard in English and 75 per cent in maths by 2002 - were set by government adviser Michael Barber. Others at the time, including Chris Woodhead, then the chief inspector, said they were too high. But Professor Barber, who has since moved from the DFES to the Cabinet Office to run the Delivery Unit set up to make sure all government departments meet their pledges, prevailed.

Mr Wells suggested 90 per cent of 11-year-olds achieving level four in English and maths was probably the limit. Last year, 75 per cent of pupils in England achieved that standard in English, and 72 per cent in maths. The Government is to consult on a target of 85 per cent for both by 2004.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "It just underlines the dubious nature of much target setting. I'm sure teachers will be extremely angry, especially when they made such Herculean efforts to achieve the targets."

David Hart, his counterpart at the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "If the Government has deliberately set over-challenging targets in its first period of office, it must follow that the new targets for 2004 are equally over-challenging. We are all caught in this non-stop pressure to hit targets without any regard to the pressure put on schools."

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