How to stay off targets

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
With the title Excellence and Enjoyment, Charles Clarke's primary strategy document has captured the spirit of the times. Inspirational in tone and determinedly non-patronising, it endorses the centrality of teachers and children in the learning process. This principle should be self-evident, but after years of dictation from the centre, it is right for the Government to assert: "A central message of this document is that teachers have the power to decide how they teach, and that the Government supports that".

The huge and enthusiastic response we have had to the TES Target Creativity campaign shows that the mood in schools is changing. Schools have begun to rethink their priorities, finding new ways to put the fun back into primary education without neglecting rigour. Heads have written to tell us how artists and scientists in school, cross-curricular work and a focus on thinking skills and learning styles have not only rejuvenated teaching and learning, but, as one Croydon headteacher put it, "unsurprisingly resulted in raised levels of achievement year on year, including national test results".

Ministers have clearly listened during their consultation conferences. Even if they have not done everything the heads and union leaders wanted, they have probably gone as far as could be expected. Their decision that targets should be built from individual children upwards - a plank in the TES campaign - is an important one. It should help schools to feel they are more in control, and that the realities they live with have not been dismissed. Unlike previous zero-tolerance statements, the document recognises that some year groups are particularly difficult, and that school-wide results will not always go up. Although officials seem quietly confident the official key stage 2 targets will be met in 2006, they have been reduced in status to aspirations. Perhaps this will help take away the targets' dark powers. The aim to modify the league tables, to show more about each school's achievements, may reduce the power of those, as well (if only by making them too complicated to follow).

Abandoning key stage 1 tests altogether was obviously a step too far for ministers. Instead, they will underpin teachers' own judgments. But with the nature of next year's pilot still undecided, it is to be hoped they will be downgraded into insignificance.

A few little-noticed aspects of the strategy could prove to be revolutionary. Plans to extend the sort of support provided by the literacy and numeracy strategies to all foundation subjects, such as art, geography, PE and designtechnology, suggest a serious commitment (at last) to the broad curriculum. There have also been hints that more elements of the foundation stage's play-based approach could be extended into the infant years. The question remains: will the retention of tables and targets mean that, despite Mr Clarke's fine words, a narrow 3Rs agenda will continue to dominate? The answer is in the hands of schools. You've got the power.

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