Over the past decade or so we have all got very used to ‘targets’ – in schools and hospitals they have become part of our everyday life. I can’t speak for the health service, but from the point of view of schools they have certainly been beneficial to us in a number of ways. But have they outlived their usefulness?
The last government was very focussed on improving performance, and of reducing the gap between the top and bottom of educational achievement. No-one could argue with that aim, as long as the gap-closing was upwards, rather than downwards. Schools were set all sorts of targets to make sure that they aimed high, and woe betide any school which failed to meet those targets!
An interesting fact is that the gap between the best achieving and worst achieving schools is often not actually as great as the gap between the best and worst performing teachers or subjects within many schools. Or was, at any rate. One of the really useful things about individual targets for students in every subject which are produced on the basis of previously taken national tests, like SATs, is that they give people like me a fair and objective benchmark across all students for all subjects. It is then very easy for me to identify teachers and subjects who perform less well than others with their students (becasue more of their students don’t meet their targets) and do what is needed to get that underperformance up. That has worked well here at Bennett and more widely over the past few years, and the gap within school between the two extremes of teachers and subjects has got much, much smaller.
However, there is an inbuilt problem, if you think about it. It’s to do with the underperforming child. If you have a child who for whatever reason (a less well educated or aspirational family, inbuilt ‘laziness’, an undetected learning difficulty, etc etc) has always underperformed at school, from primary onwards, he (or she, of course) will have underperformed in primary school SATs, will therefore have low secondary targets, and will possibly underperform in secondary school becasue less is expected of him. In a case like this, over-reliance on targets by a school will simply build in and perpetuate the child’s underperformance. It takes a highly skilful and intuitive teacher to spot the hidden potential and demand more than the target says the child can do. (Incidentally, this is the problem with the 11+ and grammar schools to – it all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and talent and potential get squandered).
Another practical problem with targets will be that this year a big proportion of year 6 students did not take the SATs. That means that the database used for generating the targets we use in secondary is going to be a lot smaller and therefore a lot less ‘reliable’.
Perhaps it’s time to think again about targets, and place new emphasis no-one having a ceiling on what they can achieve, using targets only to give us some pointers towards underperformance. Hopefully the new government will give this whole area a fresh look.