Opinion: Let's have targets, but not a list of shame

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The Independent Online
Gillian Shephard's announcement of target-setting for all schools represents another in a long line of central government's hapless and uncanny knack of misunderstanding and potentially ruining good ideas.

The words are fine, but the tune is discordant. It is not, as Mrs Shephard suggests, "drawing on business practice of setting performance targets," nor the knowledge of industrial managers that will convince parents, teachers and school communities that there is something in the idea of target-setting. It is rooted in the schools and good teaching. Teachers know that their magic moments come when they surprise students into understanding or doing something that the students did not think they could do before. Such moments are not, of course, surprising to teachers, for they arise generally from the teachers' skills, qualities and sheer hard work in preparation, delivery and follow-up, and directly from their capacity to judge how to raise students' expectations just beyond their own self- esteem.

The whole idea of target-setting in schools emerged in Birmingham three years ago during evidence to the Wragg Commission, set up by the city to report on the state of its education system. Significantly the idea came from teachers, not industrialists. Since then, Birmingham has been setting the pace. An implicit bargain was struck. The city's politicians resolved to make education their top priority. Impressively, at a time of cuts in government Revenue Support Grant - 7 per cent in one year alone in the educational poverty factor for deprived urban areas - the councillors have been as good as their word. When all around were cutting back, schools' budgets have been sustained and marginally improved in real terms. "Guarantees" were put in place for the Early Years and Primary and Secondary schools. Each have targets of input (resources, better services to schools and access to international and national networks of expertise), targets of experience (a few symbolically important to provide a focus, which the national curriculum has failed to do) and of outcome. In the latter, schools have begun to set targets for improved literacy and numeracy at age seven, 11 and during the secondary years, leading to better performance at 16 and a commitment to lifelong learning. All this has been underpinned among headteachers, teachers and governors by sharing the processes and new knowledge about school improvement. Schools in comparable circumstances, but with different outcomes, are brought together in families to learn one from the other.

Not for us published shame lists of who is top and who is bottom, so reminiscent of the long-discredited class rankings system, when we needed the failures to settle for dirty permanent jobs in prime industries. On the contrary, our watchword is for everyone to be "improving on previous best", the practice of successful learners and teachers down the years.

Most recently our schools have set millennium targets. They know they can capitalise on the fact that children in our schools - for example, Year 8 taking GCSE in the year 2000, or Year 3 taking SATs at age 11 in the same year - can be persuaded, as no recent previous generation could, to see themselves as very special. They, after all, will lay the foundations of our society's new thousand years. The targets generated in this way and doubtless rooted in teachers, parents and pupils setting achievable short-term goals for this school year, suggest 33.3 per cent improvement in GCSE and about the same improvement in literacy and numeracy standards by age 11 for the year 2000.

But the millennium factor is not simply educational. Politician and others should learn from what teachers are doing. In particular, we need to ask ourselves whether we are going to continue to fund our educational system at a level commensurate with a bygone industrial age when there were low levels of skill, or for the information and technological age we are entering.

November's Budget will give the answer. Unless there is a backing for public spending on our education system, where even the fabric of our buildings is beginning to disintegrate, teachers outside Birmingham will not find the energy to respond to distant calls for yet more top-down solutions from central government which seem to reverse the process of the alchemist by turning golden ideas into base metal. In Birmingham, we will continue to try to do the reverse.

The writer is chief education officer of Birmingham.