Know your targets for 2002
The Government's credibility - as well as the political career of David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary - hinges on the progress that six and seven-year-olds make in English and mathematics over the next few years.
The attempt to raise standards in primary schools by setting two key targets is an experiment that has not been attempted by previous governments and the fall-out might be the loss of the Education Secretary. (Mr Blunkett has offered to resign should those particular children fail to reach the targets set for them in 2002.) For the strategy to be deemed a success, the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the appropriate standard (level 4) in English has to increase from 63 per cent to 80 per cent. The mountain to climb in maths is to raise from 62 per cent to 75 per cent the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching level 4.
This transformation is to be brought about by training primary teachers in the most effective methods of teaching maths and English, and persuading schools that they should devote an hour a day to each.
In order to achieve the targets, there have to be significant improvements each year in the proportions achieving the benchmark.
Among academics, there appears to be greater certainty that the Government will meet its maths target, partly because the numeracy strategy provides guidance for primary teachers. The view emerging from the pilot schools in the numeracy project is that teachers have been impressed by the materials.
The English target, however, could prove more difficult. According to Professor Ted Wragg, improving the English skills of boys may be a tough nut to crack.
"At the moment, 69 per cent of 11-year-old girls achieve level 4. Boys would have to go from the current 57 per cent to 80 per cent," he says.
There are other problems identified by academics. One professor of education points to the Government's failure to raise the morale of teachers. The whole target-based strategy, she warns, depends on dictating to teachers the methods they should use in the classroom - on a scale that may not be completely welcome.
Unfortunately for the Government, the training due to start on the literacy project is likely to be hampered by industrial action by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. Their members are restricted to attending only one meeting a week.
Critics of the targets strategy say that there is a danger of other areas of study being neglected. The proof of the programme will not be clear until after the next election.
There are, however, differing views about what information the results will provide. It is being hailed as a massive social experiment that will test the ability of central government to have a directly beneficial impact on the classroom.
Others are less certain that the strategy will demonstrate anything other than the ability to reach narrow targets rather than bring about a real improvement in the skills of 11-year-olds.
But whichever way it goes, Mr Blunkett is unlikely to be searching for a new job.
* Platform, page 13
* FE focus, page 30