The age of targets failed by auditors

As Gordon Brown sought to turn back the tide of public criticism over his premiership this week, there were signs that his party's record on education could be swept away by a series of damning critiques. First, a National Audit Office report concludes there is no evidence that publishing league tables, or threatening struggling schools with "special measures", has any effect on school performance.

Second, a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development concludes that England's pioneering use of benchmarking and target-setting has had little effect on school performance compared with other countries. On the contrary, it seems the approach may have undermined our ability to tackle our poor performance in literacy and numeracy, and deepened the country's historic class divide.

A third example of the inadequacies of the approach is revealed in figures that show some local authorities "outperformed" their foundation stage profile benchmarks by huge margins. Unsurprisingly, the targets have been dismissed as nonsense, making them easy meat for satirists such as our own Mike Kent, who writes wonderfully on the subject today.

The decision to set, in effect, 69 targets to measure the progress of five-year-olds is a perfect example of poor benchmarking which the auditor's report says hinders professional effort. The target approach can only work, it concludes, if those expected to meet them believe they can affect the outcome being measured.

Listening to the Prime Minister and his schools chief Ed Balls this week, there is little sign that these criticisms will lead to change. The message for schools appears to be "more of the same", increasing the pressure on hundreds of secondaries that fall beneath the GCSE floor target, while sending a similar implied threat to primary schools below the "expected standard".

Yet these are exactly the flawed "gross output" measures criticised by Parliament's own auditors' report. There is now a powerful consensus that our school system is being held back by testing, targets and sanctions. A new approach is needed which gives teachers and school leaders the freedom and support to make the improvements everybody wants. The worry is that this Government is not listening.

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