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Tough targets set for Ulster pupils

The Government has set challenging academic targets for Northern Ireland's schools and colleges, but has made clear there will be no new money to help reach them.

The Strategic Plan for Education 1996-2000 asks secondary schools to push up the proportion of pupils gaining five or more GCSE grades A-C, or vocational equivalents, from 34 per cent to 43 per cent. Grammar schools are being set a goal of 100 per cent success. Currently, 93 per cent of their pupils reach this target.

Secondary schools have even tougher A-level goals - to increase numbers with two or more grades A-E (or vocational equivalents) from 65 to 87 per cent within four years. Grammars are urged to boost grades A-E from 91 to 98 per cent, but they are also expected to raise the proportion with three or more A-level grades A-C from 39 to 51 per cent.

"They represent very demanding targets for education and training in Northern Ireland, but they show clearly the levels of attainment needed to match international standards," the document says.

The plan, which follows a strategic analysis two years ago, argues that schools still need to: * put greater emphasis on the key skills of communication, numeracy and information technology; * improve primary-secondary curricular links; * offer better guidance on post-16 options; * broaden knowledge, skills and experience in the post-16 curriculum.

But there will be no new cash to meet these goals. "Developments in education, as in other public services, have to be consistent with the Government's policy of maintaining firm control on public expenditure," says the document.

Nor will there be any help for secondary schools which have lost many of their top pupils to grammar schools under open enrolment policies. Michael Ancram, the education minister, said at the launch of the plan last week that there was no demand from parents to end the 11-plus.

Selection is dismissed in a single sentence - it will remain, though the Government will consider local alternatives. This will be no surprise to teacher unions, which have recently renewed their campaign for a comprehensive system now that there is a prospect of a change of government, but it is also a snub for the influential Northern Ireland Economic Council.

In a report on the draft strategic plan, the council argued that open enrolment benefited families who were already well served. "This may have an effect upon the educational attainment of those left in unpopular schools both in terms of the reductions in resources available and also in terms of the loss of educational benefit in being surrounded by children of higher ability andor motivation."

The council also urged the Government to give a higher priority to expanding nursery education. The strategic plan does underline the Government's commitment to providing a full year's pre-school education for all children whose parents wish it. But it adds: "Recognising financial constraints, however, in the shorter term the Government's voucher-based scheme for pre-school education will be introduced in 1997 and will give parents increased access to pre-school education."

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