Islington faces bill for lower exam targets

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The Independent Online

The first education authority to be taken over by a private company has agreed to lower exam targets in a move which could net the firm an extra £450,000 a year.

The north London borough of Islington, former home of Tony Blair, has set new targets for 2005 that will lower the goals for its primary schools. Its decision comes after the country's biggest privatised education authority, Bradford, agreed to lower its targets last year to allow the company running its schools to protect its bonuses. The company then received £880,000 in bonuses after meeting the lower targets.

Islington Council's decision will raise further questions about the private sector's ability to turn around struggling education authorities.

The change means that CEA@Islington - part of Cambridge Education Associates which is owned by the management consultants Mott MacDonald - is more likely to pocket an extra £450,000 a year of the annual management fee it receives from the Government under its £21m seven-year contract to run the borough's schools.

The company has been fined every year since it was hired by the Government in 2000. Last year it was penalised £518,645 for failing to hit its targets for primary schools, English tests for 14 year olds and GCSE results.

The company had argued that unrealistic goals merely demoralised pupils and teachers. It described the new targets as "challenging yet achievable".

Liberal Democrat-controlled Islington Council has agreed to lower its targets for primary school tests taken by all 11-year-olds in English and maths from 80 per cent this year to 75 per cent in 2005. Last summer CEA@Islington missed all its targets for this age group. Only 69 per cent of children reached the required standard in English, missing a target of 79 per cent for 2003. In maths, 68 per cent of children succeeded but the target was 75 per cent.

For tests for 14-year-olds, the borough has agreed the lowest legally allowed target. It wants 65 per cent of pupils to reach the required standard in maths and English and 62 per cent in science in 2005.

This will still be very challenging for the struggling borough as only 49 per cent of pupils succeeded in English last summer, 57 per cent in maths and 51 per cent in science.

GCSE targets have been raised slightly to require 43 per cent of students to achieve five good passes by 2005. The current target is 39 per cent, but only 38.5 per cent of teenagers reached that standard last year. The national average is 52.9 per cent.

A report approved by Islington Council this month admits that the new targets will be easier to achieve and so will result in a higher management fee being paid to CEA@Islington. Eleven of the 13 new targets are included in the company's contract with Islington and half of the management fee, around £450,000, depends on them being met. If more than five of the targets are missed, the whole of the £450,000 is forfeited.

The report warned of the "corporate financial implications" of approving the new targets, warning: "To date CEA@Islington have always missed at least five targets. The new targets, which in some cases are more realistic than previous targets, make it more likely that the targets and more of the fee will be paid."

The decision to lower the targets has led to a row within the council. Mary Creagh, leader of Islington's Labour group, said: "Continually diluting the targets will only dent public confidence in education in Islington.''