MINISTERS this week gave teachers a pleasant surprise with a primary strategy that dropped the 2004 key stage 2 targets and acknowledged changes were needed to tests for seven-year-olds.
Charles Clarke, Education Secretary, told a conference of heads that he was responding to their complaints about excessive pressure from top-down targets.
The Government will retain a commitment of 85 per cent of 11-year-olds reaching level 4 in English and maths but, instead of 2004, this will be reached "as soon as possible" and schools will take control of the target-setting process.
Heads welcomed the report, but said resources must be made available to exploit their new freedom.
Schools will be told to set their own targets, based on their children's abilities. But they have been warned that each age group is expected to make more progress than the one before. Objectives for education authorities will be based on their schools' targets.
The plans were condemned by Tory education spokesman Damian Green as a "cynical exercise". Although Mr Green supports the scrapping of arbitary targets, he said the real motive for the change was that the Government had realised it would fail to meet the 2004 goals.
But Mr Clarke said he had responded to protests over targets set from the top that took little account of what a school could achieve. Launching the document, Excellence and Enjoyment: A strategy for primary schools, he said: "We have listened to those who said there is nothing more demoralising than going through the process of setting targets only to have them thrown away because they don't add up to the right number."
Debbie Buckingham, head at the 120-pupil Tedburn St Mary school, near Exeter, said: "This gives heads the freedom to start to create a curriculum our children need. I have a specialist art teacher who comes in, which gives teachers planning time. Our recent Ofsted report said art was outstanding. Unfortunately I'm now finding it difficult to maintain that because of the lack of funding."
The Government's failure to meet 2002 test targets contributed to the resignation of then education secretary Estelle Morris. Soon afterwards heads were sent a ministerial letter telling them they must do better in 2003. David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that this week's changes would head off a threatened boycott of key stage 2 tests by angry members.
But the National Union of Teachers, the biggest teaching union, is to press ahead with a ballot on industrial action over tests.
There is also disappointment that the Government has failed to do more on key stage 1 tests. The new strategy says: "We do not accept that the tests and tasks which are set to children at ... seven are too difficult or stressful."
But there will be a trial next year in which teachers will be able to choose from a bank of tests in order to inform their assessment. Children will then get one overall level in each subject rather than separate test and teacher assessment scores.
Last week, the Primary Education Alliance, which represents more than half of primaries, joined calls for an end to tests for seven-year-olds, saying they are stressful and distort the curriculum.
In Wales, KS1 tests were abolished in 2001. Last year, seven-year-olds there had teacher assessment only. KS2 and KS3 tests are being reviewed.
Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "The trialling of proposals to allow schools to embed KS1 tests in ... overall assessments and allow teachers to decide when children are tested is welcome, provided individual heads do not try to introduce cumbersome ... forms of teacher assessment."
There is also disappointment that league tables remain. However, consultation on change is under way. Ideas in the strategy include: omitting results of children with severe learning difficulties; including a headline inspection judgement, and comparing results of schools in similar circumstances.
* Schools will set their own targets first, which will then feed into LEA targets.
* National target of 85 per cent of 11-year-olds reaching level 4 kept as an aspiration to be met "as soon as possible", probably 2006.
* Trial of merging KS1 tests and teacher assessment.
* Consultation on changing league tables.
* Specialist training in subjects besides English and maths.
* Support for transition into primary and on to secondary.
* Partnership with parents to be extended.
* Lessons in good behaviour.