Unrealistic targets lower staff morale

Ministers are warned that targets for 11-year-olds are counter-productive.

Helen Ward reports

HIGH targets for 11-year-olds in maths and English are becoming counter-productive and narrowing the curriculum, an official report on the national literacy and numeracy strategies will say next week.

Education minister Stephen Twigg has called for a "significant improvement" in English and maths this year to put the 2004 targets within grasp.

But academics at the University of Toronto said national targets may no longer motivate teachers, particularly if they are seen to be unrealistic.

The researchers, led by Michael Fullan, were brought in by the Department for Education and Skills, to evaluate the two strategies over three years.

Two-thirds of those consulted on the 2004 targets said they were too high, but the Government has refused to lower its goal of 85 per cent of 11-year-olds reaching level 4 in English and maths.

The report, Watching and Learning 3, calls for a shift to "consolidation targets", aimed at maintaining standards, and suggests more note should be taken of other types of progress schools make.

The Toronto report concluded that the strategies have been generally well implemented and well supported by schools. Teaching has improved substantially since the strategies were introduced.

But it said the intended changes in teaching and learning have not yet been fully realised. A key challenge will be to motivate teachers whose knowledge is still weak to do more, when they already feel overwhelmed by new initiatives.

The report's recommendations include:

* Increasing the number of teachers who are strategy experts.

* Less central control and more ability for teachers to adapt and refine their practice.

* Reducing teachers' workload.

It says the strategies are good value for money and that the balance between national direction and local expertise is a firm foundation for future progress.

Setting targets helped mobilise the teachers early on, said the researchers. But by 2002 the high political stakes resting on 11-year-olds'

test scores - partly responsible for the departure of Education Secretary Estelle Morris - was skewing teaching methods and narrowing the curriculum.

"We caution that setting ever-higher national targets may no longer serve to mobilise and motivate, particularly if schools and local education authorities see the targets as unrealistic."

The Government has already confirmed that the targets for 2006 will be the same as those for 2004, 85 per cent of pupils to achieve level 4, the expected grade for 11-year-olds, and 35 per cent at level 5 in maths and English.

"Much has been accomplished and this should be celebrated. At the same time, a careful look at the progress of the strategies reveals no shortage of challenges for the years ahead," said the report.

News, 11; Primary Focus, 24

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