The intensifying support programme is backed by most headteachers, yet many worry about the anxiety it causes the youngest pupils.
CHILDREN AS young as four are being given improvement targets to meet every six weeks under a government programme aimed at improving test scores.
Concerns about the strategy were raised by teachers at the National Union of Teachers conference this week.
They said that it was making young children anxious about their academic performance and was subjecting a group most in need of an exciting curriculum to target-based tasks.
Some primary pupils have individual targets displayed in classrooms for all to see, they said.
Children are also interviewed by heads and local authority advisers on what their targets are, with teachers coming under pressure if pupils are unclear about their achievement levels.
However, research for the Government found that a majority of heads backed the intensifying support programme, run by the primary national strategy and used in more than 2,000 schools. The research also found that the scheme appeared to be working uncontroversially in many areas of England.
Three-quarters of heads said it was worth the time, while 55 per cent said pupils were learning more because of it. Two-thirds said their local authority was managing the programme well.
In the research were comments that it "provides a focus of support for school improvement", while another said "it helps to bring the whole staff team together to meet a common aim".
Pete Dudley, national director of the primary national strategy, said: "ISP has improved the life chances of tens of thousands of pupils in some of the lowest-achieving primary schools. It seeks to ensure that good practice in setting targets for pupils I is embedded in schools where this practice has not been widely used."
The study also found that it raised the proportion of pupils achieving level 4 in key stage 2 English and maths tests. But this might have been because it focuses on "borderline" level 4 children, said a draft version of the study.
The academics, from Nottingham Trent University, say this comment was removed from the report's main findings because civil servants found it controversial.
Intensifying support was introduced in 2002 and is designed to improve test results in schools where fewer than two-thirds of pupils achieve the Government's expected level at KS2. It focuses on targets, for example, that reception children should be able to find one more or one less of a given number of objects, and show knowledge of simple sentence structures.
By Year 6 they should add and subtract decimals to two places and apply their grammatical knowledge when reading complex sentences.
Some teachers are worried about the programme targeting middle-ability pupils. Others are concerned about the effect on their workloads, as pupils have to be set targets for reading, writing and maths every six weeks, with their progress reported to parents.
Sasha Elliott, from Camden, told NUT delegates at Harrogate: "Teachers know all too well about the stress-inducing, workload-raising, curriculum-narrowing impact of this nasty intervention."
The NUT passed a motion saying it would back teachers who would not accept some of the programme's measures.
John Illingworth, a past president of the union, said pupils were now being "tortured" by being asked to perform academically from a young age while other countries focused on enjoyment.
One London teacher told The TES that she had been asked by the programme's inspector and her head to direct her attention at middle-ability groups working below government expectations. But other children had picked up on it, and complained that they were being neglected.
A teacher, from Nottingham, said: "The targets system causes pressure and stress for children. To those with special needs, who will never attain their targets I it is soul destroying."
Comment, page 20
Teachers who are worried about the intensifying support programme are advised to take it up with their unions.
The unions are holding talks in Nottingham next week over local concerns about the project.
The National Union of Teachers has a list of educational and workload worries, which have been reported in many of the 25 schools implementing the programme. John Illingworth, assistant branch secretary, said if the matters were not addressed, local members would be balloted on industrial action.
He added:"If teachers are being asked to do things they do not agree with, they should contact their union and we will investigate."