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Tests here to stay but stress will be eased

Ministers refuse to abolish Sats but promise more creativity. Helen Ward reports

Tests and targets will remain at the heart of primary education, despite complaints from teachers and academics that they stifle creativity, the Government will make clear next week.

But teachers will be asked for their views on how testing and targets can be improved - and schools will be told to broaden the curriculum - in the long-awaited primary strategy document.

Critics say that ministers' encouragement of creativity is meaningless while the testing regime is still in place and that the pressures on schools and pupils will continue.

Education ministers have spent the past few weeks repeatedly renewing their commitment to the New Labour target-setting agenda, despite building anger over the national tests for seven, 11 and 14-year-olds.

Some concessions are expected. The document will acknowledge that tests can put pressure on schools. Sources say that Education Secretary Charles Clarke is anxious to discuss how the undesirable side-effects can be reduced.

Teacher assessment, rather than tests, for seven-year-olds as in Wales has been ruled out but ministers are ready to consider new procedures. Primary teachers want the tests to be spread over a longer time.

The new strategy will also put more emphasis on measures which show pupils'

progress in order to address concerns that the push for level 4 brands lower-ability children as "failures". This year, scores which show progress between ages seven and 11 are being introduced for all primaries.

The strategy, brought in to revive the flagging literacy and numeracy programmes, is also designed to introduce a "broad and rich" curriculum into schools.

But many teachers will see it simply as a reaffirmation of the dominance of English and maths in primary schools.

Other themes include:

* encouraging schools to be innovative and creative;

* strengthening leadership;

* support for schools in designing a broad and rich and curriculum.

Unions who have been consulted are disappointed that the document is not more ambitious. One senior official said: "It is good that the Government recognises the stresses and pressures in the primary curriculum and the need to introduce creativity.

"But it is skirting around the issue and not tackling the cause of it - the tests, targets and league tables."

Another said: "The targets in the background do not encourage creativity, they stifle innovation and are counter-productive."

David Bell, the chief inspector, academics and headteachers have all warned that the high-stakes testing regime is starting to backfire.

A TES poll of 400 primary headteachers in England found that nine out of 10 thought the targets were out of reach - and almost all admitted their timetables were biased towards English and maths, often at the expense of music or art.

Ministers announced last autumn that the national literacy and numeracy strategies would be combined under the umbrella primary strategy, to be launched in September. The announcement was made after the Government failed to reach its 2002 targets in English and maths.

Three pilot projects are being run under the primary strategy, testing ways of using whiteboards, teaching assistants and advisory support.

The proportion of children achieving level 4 in English has risen from 64 per cent in 1998, before the introduction of the national literacy strategy, to 75 per cent in 2002. In maths, 69 per cent of 11-year-olds reached level 4 in 1999, the year before the national numeracy strategy, that has now risen to 73 per cent.

* Professor David Hargreaves, former chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, yesterday called for the abolition of national tests for 14-year-olds.

News, 2, 3 Creativity competition, 4 International, 22

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