Schools say they will miss targets

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UP TO half of all primary schools will fail to meet exam targets vital to the Government's drive to raise standards, head teachers said yesterday.

A survey of local authorities by academics at Durham University found only 54 per cent expected to meet their target for 11-year-olds' performance in maths and only 51 per cent expected to hit goals in English by 2002. Researchers found even fewer head teachers were confident. Only 49 per cent expected to hit their own school target set for next year.

The warning from the National Association of Head Teachers will ensure a rough ride for the Prime Minister today when he becomes the first serving premier to address the heads' annual conference in Cardiff.

Tony Blair has staked his reputation on hitting the targets, a key election pledge, and David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education has promised to resign if the goal is not reached.

Ministers expect 75 per cent of 11-year-olds to reach expected standards in maths and 80 per cent to reach the standard in English by 2002. Schools need to increase the number of children hitting the standard by four percentage points a year if the targets are to be met. But yesterday heads said schools needed "a quantum leap" to meet the goals and there was "grave danger" they would fail.

David Hart, the association's general secretary, said staff "were doing their damnedest" to make sure 11-year-olds reached national standards. But he said the Government's targets were ill-advised and should be redrawn. "It is an extremely stringent process the like of which we have never seen. It makes the Tory standards agenda look like a tea party. We are telling the Government they have got it wrong. They may not like it but it is reality and people have to live with reality.

"Any shortfall does not mean teachers are teaching badly. The reality is teachers are teaching better and better and better, but nobody should underestimate the challenge."

Last year heads threatened open conflict with the Government over the targets, urging schools to "just say no" to local goals they believed were unrealistic. But Mr Hart insisted teachers were "working as hard as they can to fulfil the Government's expectations".

Heads said the tests last month distorted children's education, wasted valuable teaching time and caused unnecessary stress. Chris Thatcher, the association president, said: "We have in our primary schools an exam culture at the age of 7 and 11. We have an increase in the terrific amount of stress that children have during these tests."

Heads said government exam regulators "moved the goalposts" when they had dropped the pass rate for English tests to compensate for changes that made the tests themselves more difficult.

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment said: "We are confident the targets will be met. The Government has put the resources behind them and the targets have the overwhelming support of parents, teachers and head teachers."