Improvements slow in primary education

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Ministers are nowhere near their goal of 85 per cent of 11-year-olds leaving primary school able to read, write and do their arithmetic to the required level by next year, national curriculum test results will show.

This year's test results, to be announced in a fortnight, will show a slight improvement in both maths and English this year. But they will be far short of the Government's "aspiration" of getting 85 per cent of youngsters to reach the required level in each subject next year.

The improvement of about 1.3 per cent in maths and 1.6 per cent in English make it touch and go whether the Government will even meet the target it set for 2002 of 80 per cent in English and 75 per cent in maths.

These are the findings of an exclusive survey of English education authorities by The Independent. They show that if ministers are to meet what was once a target for 2006 but is now only an aspiration, drastic action must be taken to improve standards.

Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, has already announced an inquiry into the way the national literacy strategy is taught. She charged its chairman, Jim Rose, with considering more wide-spread use of synthetic phonics in the teaching of reading in primary schools.

The results of this year's tests, to be announced by the Government on 23 August, appear to indicate more drastic action is needed to improve standards in maths. Most local authorities already have provisional figures for the results.

The survey, completed by 32 local education authorities, shows that, on average, schools have improved their performance in the English test by 1.6 per cent. In maths, the improvement is just under 1.3 per cent. The figures leave it open to question whether the Government will reach the famous target it set for 2002. The failure to reach this was a factor in the resignation of Estelle Morris as Education Secretary.

David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "These figures prove conclusively that the government targets ought to be torn up and consigned to the waste-paper bin. The targets were plucked out of the air in the first place. The fact that primary schools might only be reaching the targets three years down the track is not a criticism of the primary schools; it is a criticism of the targets the Government set.

"The Government should ask itself whether its targets were right. These results make the targets for next year look totally and utterly inappropriate. The Government may say these are aspirations rather than targets but I don't think anybody is convinced by that change of language."

Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, added: "We as parents want to know our children are improving but we would like less emphasis on targets. There is concern among parents that we are spending too much time before the tests on teaching to them and education is suffering as a result. There is support in this country for the Government to follow the same route as Wales and abolish the national targets and tests."

Most local authorities that replied to the survey indicated their figures were provisional and could be altered on appeal by schools. A breakdown of the responses indicates this year there is little difference in the percentage improvement between urban inner-city authorities and those in the suburbs.

Schools in urban areas had improved their performance at a far faster rate than those in the suburbs, enabling ministers to say their decision to target resources on improving inner-city education had paid off.

Education authorities in the suburbs said it was easier for inner-city schools to improve because they started from a lower base.

Mr Hart said: "I hope results will improve year on year but there's a danger the great strides made in the inner cities will slow because heads working in the most challenging areas are having to tackle deep-seated deprivation which has an impact on the achievement of these children."

Results have improved dramatically since 1997. When Labour came to power, only three out of five youngsters reached the required standard in either subject. There were big improvements in the first three years, after introduction of a compulsory literacy hour and daily maths lesson for every primary. But before a rise last year of 3 per cent in English and 1 per cent in maths, results had stagnated since 2000.