A slight improvement in KS2 results this year still leaves weary primary staff with a mountain to climb. Dorothy Lepkowska reports
Ministers have spurned pleas to abandon ambitious primary targets despite only slight improvements in this year's test results.
If poorly performing schools pulled themselves up to the standard of higher-scoring ones with similar intakes, the 2006 target of 85 per cent of 11-year-olds reaching the expected level in maths and English was achievable, a government spokeswoman insisted.
But David Bell, the chief inspector, warned against a narrow focus on targets. Earlier this year, he said that the focus on English and maths was depriving schools of a rounded education.
This year's provisional results at key stage 2 show that 77 per cent of pupils achieved the benchmark level 4 in English, up from 75 per cent in 2003. In maths there was a one-point increase to 74 per cent but in science a one-point drop to 86 per cent.
Heads and education groups renewed their call for the abolition of the tests.
David Miliband, school standards minister, refused to be drawn on whether schools would meet targets set for 2006. He said he was most concerned that the results were going in the right direction.
He said he was confident that the Government, local authorities and schools were working hard to improve attainment as fast as possible.
But a government spokeswoman said: "The target of 85 per cent is achievable. If all schools performed as well as the top quartile of those in similar circumstances we would reach 85 per cent nationally."
Mr Bell said : "By focusing exclusively on targets we lose sight of the significant progress there has been in our schools since the 1990s. It is important to have aspirational targets but we should not spend our time worrying about what has not been done and look instead at what is being achieved."
Schools are now left with an eight-point gap to close in English, and an 11-point one in maths, to hit the targets in two years.
Schools in deprived areas made most progress this year, with Hartlepool improving the proportion of pupils reaching the benchmark by seven percentage points each in English and maths, and Hackney and Southampton raising scores by seven points in English and six in maths. Other authorities that made big improvements included Bury, Barnsley, Knowsley, Dudley and Calderdale.
The key stage 1 results showed that 90 per cent of seven-year-olds achieved level 2 in maths: 92 per cent for girls and 89 per cent for boys. Girls outperformed boys at all levels of KS1 literacy. Overall 85 per cent reached the benchmark in reading: 89 per cent of girls and 81 per cent boys. In writing 82 per cent got to level 2: 87 per cent of girls and 76 per cent of boys.
The proportion of seven-year-olds reaching level 2B or higher was 71 per cent in reading, 62 per cent in writing and 75 per cent in maths. Overall 29 per cent scored above expected levels in reading (at level 3), 16 per cent in writing and 28 per cent in maths, similar figures to 2003.
Mr Miliband said the results showed that standards in primaries were improving after several years of little progress. He said: "Pupils and parents can be confident that their primary schools are still getting better and better."
This year for the first time some schools put more emphasis on teacher assessment at KS1 and used tests at their own discretion. Their results were virtually identical to those who followed the usual testing timetable.
John Coe of the National Association for Primary Education said he was pressing ministers to adopt a similar approach at key stage 2.
Kim Adams, head of Wellington primary, in Waltham Forest, London, called for the tests to be scrapped. She said: "We no longer need them. Schools have now reached the point where they are perfectly able to evaluate their pupils' performances without these stressful tests."