Targets are fine but let nature have a say

30th May 2003 at 01:00
My daughter was nearly 18 months old before she walked. I pride myself on being level-headed about these things - I know that developmental milestones are just averages - but I had moments of panic when confronted by the worried looks of those mums whose offspring were half my daughter's age when given their first pair of Clarks. What if there is something wrong with my child? Once the panic subsided the anger would set in: how could I let myself be sucked into the targets game, knowing that it is all about statistics and averages?

Six years on and I have just felt that same stab of anger, not just for my own child, but for the 89 other infants at the school where I am chair of governors. Our six and seven-year-olds have low key stage 1 results in comparison with our benchmark schools, but by the time they reach 11 they have caught up. Our key stage 2 scores are fine - above the local average and on a par with the national rate. Living proof of the benefits of a five-to-11 primary, where you have seven years to ensure that pupils enter secondary school with more than a fighting chance.

So why have I just spent a week trying to find ways to make the infant classes even more restrictive places, to take out more of the little fun that's left? It's that target game again.

Our education authority has a three-term entry system so no child is more than four months past their fifth birthday when they start school. The closest we get to the late start enjoyed by our continental neighbours. Yet because we have been told we have to improve our key stage 1 results, we toyed with changing to a one or two-term admissions system. Fortunately, the authority said no. I say fortunately, because once the target panic had passed, I thought that forcing four-year-olds into full-time education would be akin to refusing to let my daughter crawl when the books said she should be walking. We know almost two-thirds of our 30 Year 2s are six when they take tests designed, we are told, for seven-year-olds, yet still we feel obliged to ignore the individuals who have had only six terms in school and judge them against the average. In a cohort of 30, each child who is just not ready for Sats costs us 3 per cent of our target figure.

If changing our admissions was out, what about altering the nursery entry so that the rising fives share full-time foundation classes with reception? This, said the authority, was a possibility. But it was in discussing this option with the head that I really felt that stab of anger.

What am I doing? Even if we could make the transformation, what about those three-year-olds whose nursery places would be taken by hot-housed four-year-olds? Why should we consider denying children a play-based, informal education by turning others full-time?

Having rejected both these measures, what next? We are now seeing if we can extend foundation stage principles into Year 1. Instead of more prescription, perhaps we should try less.

With a relatively small cohort, good teachers and strong tracking and assessment systems, praised in a recent Ofsted report, we know when our pupils are making progress, and have successful intervention programmes in place for those who do not. But schools have to be brave to allow more creativity in infant classes knowing inspectors will look longer and harder at any school that tries to break free from central prescription. We know because having introduced "excellent" assessment processes for the core subjects, Ofsted now insists we spread it into the foundation curriculum.

More objectives and targets, less learning for the fun of it. How do you assess one boy's obsession with falconry in the Tudor period, which gives him expert knowledge of birds of prey, when the learning objective is to know the names and fate of Henry's wives?

After years of central control and intervention, what we need is more self-confidence to ignore artificial benchmarks. We know milestones are a useful guide, but just as I knew my daughter would eventually walk, we know our pupils will reach their potential, if not when they are seven, by the time they are 11. Forcing them could do more harm than good.

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