Leading article: An overload of targets, tests and tables

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The country's largest headteachers' organisation, the National Association of Head Teachers, claimed this weekend that the Government was obsessed by the three Ts - Targets, Tests and Tables. And we have some sympathy with their view. Teachers and pupils alike complain that continual testing stifles enthusiasm and creativity and makes school dull for all concerned. But the answer is not - as the headteachers demanded - the outright abolition of testing and all the paraphernalia that accompanies it.

True, English pupils are among the most tested in the Western world. They have national curriculum tests at 7, 11 and 14, GCSEs, AS-levels and A-levels at 16, 17 and 18. And the Education Secretary is now proposing to set tougher targets for five-year-olds - this is before children in many other European countries have even started formal schooling. It is true, too, that Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland manage without such a rigid testing regime.

Those who seek to abolish tests and league tables, however, need to remember the state that the education system was in before they were introduced. There was no measure of a child's progress until the approach of GCSEs, and no yardstick at all by which to judge the effectiveness of primary schools. We now have a far better idea of how schools are performing. And while more tests for five-year-olds are clearly undesirable, the key stage two tests taken by 11-year-olds need to be retained in some shape or form. As for league tables, it would not be politically possible, nor would it be desirable, to have this information removed from the public domain.

That some changes have already been made shows that the Government is not completely inflexible. The achievement figures, for instance, have been supplemented with information about "value added" to show whether schools have improved on the expected performance of their pupils. Even so, there is a case for a more liberal approach to testing. Ministers have already agreed to drop "sudden death" tests for seven-year-olds and place more emphasis on teacher assessment. A similar approach should be adopted for the tests for 14-year-olds. Whether separate league tables are needed for the tests for 14-year-olds is also questionable, given that GCSE and A-level results are both published.

In short, the NAHT has some justified concerns, even if its demands are more sweeping than the Department for Education - or we - would like. Regrettably, the decision by ministers to boycott the heads' conference because of a disagreement over a new teachers' contract suggests that they are not, at present, in listening mode.

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