Education authorities are still setting targets that schools say are too high, despite Government assurances. Helen Ward reports
New official figures reveal the extent of the pressure on primaries to reach targets, despite the Government's promise that the system would change.
Ministers told primaries last year to set their own key stage 2 targets after heads complained that the curriculum was being skewed by the pressure to meet unrealistic targets set by councils.
Under the new system, schools set targets first. Local authorities follow and are supposed to take schools' targets into account.
But figures from the Department for Education and Skills for 2005 reveal that more than one in four authorities in England has set targets for English which are between five and 13 percentage points higher than their schools believe possible. And while no council believes English results in 2005 will be lower than in 2003, schools in 19 authorities say this is possible.
The Government denies some councils' claims that they have been put under pressure to set high targets.
But John Coe, of the National Association for Primary Education, said: "The Government is speaking with two voices. It has put greater reliance on assessment by teachers, but is still using targets as a management tool for authorities.
"A by-product of pressure on authorities has been to damage the relationship between authorities and their schools. The greater the pressure on authorities, the greater the pressure on schools."
The largest gap is in Reading where the authority expects 85 per cent of 11-year-olds to get level 4 in English next year, compared to the 72 per cent which its schools say is more realistic.
The Isle of Wight says 80 per cent of its 11-year-olds should get level 4 in maths next year, teachers say 68 per cent will do so.
Despite the decision to let schools set targets first, DfES officials originally told councils that their 2005 targets should put them on course to reach at least 78 per cent in English and maths in 2006.
The Government has now said it has only questioned authorities' targets if they were below schools' predictions or if very little progress was shown between the ages of seven and 11. A spokeswoman said that it expected many authorities to set higher targets than their schools to reflect the impact of centrally-run programmes - and added that there was no limit on these targets.
Wolverhampton has set targets 10 percentage points higher than its schools.
The Office for Standards in Education said in its report on the otherwise highly satisfactory authority that such "unrealistic" targets were a weakness.
Alan Leech, the National Association of Head Teachers' regional officer for the West Midlands, said: "I can see no reason why heads throughout Wolverhampton would not predict accurate targets. The heads know the children - contrast that with an officer sitting at a desk somewhere who says we think this figure should be 10 percentage points higher.
"Which has the likelihood of being based upon fact and which is the hunch?"
Schools in Wolverhampton expect English results to go from 69 per cent in 2003 to 74 per cent in 2005 and maths to rise from 65 per cent to 75 per cent. The authority wants English and maths scores to reach 84 and 85 per cent respectively.
Christine Irvine, Wolverhampton cabinet member for education, said: "We want to be aspirational and there have been improvements in results but in terms of targets being rather more than schools would set, that is something that the DfES had encouraged us to do."
In Suffolk, where 75 per cent of children gained English level 4 in 2003, the council expects 86 per cent will do so in 2005 - compared to schools'
predictions of 76 per cent.
Rachael Black, assistant director of education for Suffolk, said:
"Following negotiation with the DfES, and in a spirit of ambition, we decided to run with these targets for key stage 2."