Leading article: A fraud on all our pupils

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Today we report yet more evidence of the malign effect that targets can have in the classroom. A study by Birmingham City University found that teachers, who are often accused of "teaching to the test", were, in effect, testing to the target. They felt under pressure to show that their pupils were progressing, even if they were not, and adjusted their grading accordingly. Another study, from the University of London's Institute of Education, showed how some schools essentially "gamed" the system, matching marks to targets, as required, and whisking disruptive pupils away before inspections. The purpose in every case was to ensure the school met its targets and occupied a higher position in the league tables than it would otherwise have done.

Targets have their place – schools, pupils, parents and teachers need to know where they stand in comparison with others. But they are only useful if they are honest and accurate. Overzealous application of pre-set targets invites just the sort of behaviour exposed in these studies. It should be called by its proper name, which is fraud.

But it is worse than this. When teachers falsify marks to meet targets, this subverts the essence of what education should be about. Pupils are encouraged to believe they are performing better than they are; parents are being additionally misled about the quality of teachers and schools. The result is inflated grades and a fiction of attainment that collapses as soon as these ill-served school-leavers face the real world.

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