Alan Smithers: Targets do not improve our education system

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The Independent Online

The reaction of some head teachers to the shock news that the Blairs, like most parents, are doing their best to help their children succeed in education is very revealing. They said it was unfair because it helped to boost the school's results. It illustrates vividly how much current thinking about education is being distorted by the Government's attempts to manage centrally the education system through targets in the manner of a defunct socialist republic.

The reaction of some head teachers to the shock news that the Blairs, like most parents, are doing their best to help their children succeed in education is very revealing. They said it was unfair because it helped to boost the school's results. It illustrates vividly how much current thinking about education is being distorted by the Government's attempts to manage centrally the education system through targets in the manner of a defunct socialist republic.

Quite why ministers should have gone down this road in education, and in health, is not clear. After all, they sensibly ruled out a socialist economy. But the outcomes could have been easily foreseen from what happened in Eastern Europe.

If rewards and sanctions are attached to attaining targets, managers will focus on them at the expense of other, more important, goals. Everything possible will be done to reach the specified numbers, but if they are unattainable there will be a tendency to make them up. There is, for example, the story of the Soviet factory required to produce a certain weight of nails, which switched to making only large ones because that was the most efficient way of fulfilling its quota.

On coming to power in 1997 the Blair government famously declared targets for the levels of literacy and numeracy to be reached by 11-year-olds in 2002. They represented extraordinarily high growth rates on top of considerable improvements already made. All the stops have been pulled out and there are constant cries that primary education consists of little else. Even so, some head teachers confronted with impossible targets have resorted to various forms of finagling. We are into the crunch year, which may well deliver the Government its comeuppance.

Not surprisingly, hot-housed primary pupils tend to pause for breath in the early secondary years. This dip has recently led to great concern on the part of the Government and the inspectorate. Their response: more targets. Almost the first pronouncement of the new chief inspector of schools was to propose targets for 12-year-olds. There are, however, already targets for 14-year-olds which are being pursued through a Key Stage 3 strategy costing £200m a year.

Ironically, this has meant stripping schools of some of their best teachers as advisers, when the money could have been better given to them to employ more teachers. The same goes for the target-driven School Achievement Awards, costing £60m a year, which are almost impossible to distribute fairly to schools or individuals. The target for the end of compulsory schooling divides the five GCSEs, grades A* to C sheep from the lower-performing goats. The unintended message is that schools should concentrate on pupils on the C/D borderline and look for the exam boards and the subjects where their pupils have the best chance of achieving a C. This target does nothing to challenge the brightest students and demotivates those with no hope of making the magic five. Fundamentally, it gets in the way of developing appropriate education for all with ladders into employment as well as into higher education.

Recent higher-education policy has been dominated by Tony Blair's target of getting 50 per cent of young people into university. But the problem is not attracting more students, as is assumed. Already more than 50 per cent experience higher education at some stage in their lives. The Conservative government's "target" of about a third was, in fact, a limit to keep spending down to what it judged the taxpayer could afford. The Government's delayed review of student support is bedevilled by its search for voter-friendly ways of widening access, whereas the key is to find an equitable means of funding universities to which it will be worth going. Soviet-style economies collapsed because they did not allow sufficient rein to individual ambition. Is it too much to hope that as the Blairs ponder the outcry over their ambition for their sons they will realise that it stems, in part, from the regime currently imposed on state-funded education? If the Prime Minister were to listen more to his own experience and less to policy wonks, perhaps schools and universities would be able to get back to the heart of education.

The writer is the Sydney Jones professor of education and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Liverpool

education@independent.co.uk

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