Clarke U-turn over targets for primary classrooms

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The Independent Online

Charles Clarke will announce a major U-turn today over the target-setting regime in primary schools that has been condemned by teachers leaders for putting children under too much pressure.

In a wide-ranging reform of the present system, the Secretary of State for Education will bring the current targets - under which top-down targets are set by local education authorities for every school in the country - to an end and give individual schools the freedom to set their own targets.

In a speech in London unveiling the Government's vision of the future of primary schooling, he will announce: "It is far better that professional headteachers set their own targets than bureaucrats in Whitehall and elsewhere.''

He will argue that under the old system many schools were set unrealistic targets that sapped teachers' morale and made it more difficult for them to raise standards.

However, Mr Clarke will insist that demanding national targets of 85 per cent of pupils reaching the required standard in English and maths tests for 11-year-olds by 2004 will remain in force. It was the equivalent of these targets for 2002 that played a major part in the decision of his predecessor, Estelle Morris, to resign.

In a softening of the Government's line, though, he will say ministers believe the new targets should be met "as soon as possible'' and acknowledge that they are demanding.

As revealed by The Independent last Friday, he will also announce moves to make tests for seven-year-olds more palatable to teachers and parents - by concentrating more on teacher assessment rather than externally set tests for that age group in future.

In years to come, more weight will be given to teachers' individual assessment of their pupils' work. In a pilot to be launched next year, parents will be given the test marks of their children and teachers' assessment of their performance - together with teachers' notes on any discrepancies between the two.

However, in a robust defence of the Government's testing regime, he will insist that tests of seven and 11-year-olds are "here to stay'' and that he did not accept that the tests for seven-year-olds were stressful, adding: "It is not unreasonable to expect a child of seven to sit the tests.''

Mr Clarke will recall statistics that show that seven million adults in the UK lack the basic skills to read and add up properly, adding that "every one of these adults has been to a primary school.

"What we are not talking about is throwing away all the lessons that have been learned and that have given us such success and going back to a free for all,'' he will add. "We know that some children were failed abysmally - appallingly - by the old school system.

"Targets, tests and tables are about making sure we're giving children the education they deserve and we are doing that consistently,'' he said.

The minister's concessions come amid a background of rising resentment from teachers' leaders and headteachers over the current testing and targeting regime. Only yesterday, a campaign was launched by both primary schools headteachers and parents aimed at abolishing the tests for seven-year-olds - as had already happened in Wales.

The National Union of Teachers is also committed to holding a ballot on boycotting all national curriculum tests for seven, 11 and 14-year-olds next year.