Come on down, Joe Targeteer

We obsessives love ticking off targets. (That's six words I've written already). Single figure, or two, three, four-digit targets, let them allcome. Tall, thin, short, fat, round, square, oblong or diamond-shapedtargets, no matter. You set targets, we obsessives will meet them.

Take my daily run. Every morning, without fail, I go for a run. Thismorning I reached the first telephone box on my route after 400 strides.That was 400 exactly, by the way. You just have to pace it right. Sad, Iknow, but targets are there to be hit.

Tomorrow I will aim to reach the telephone box in 390 strides. This should bring me nicely to a precise 800 strides at the junction by the big white house.

I did once increase the target to the telephone box day by day, until I arrived there after only 299 strides. It was a monumental feat.

Having broken the 300 barrier, the only reason I stopped was because I was risking a double hernia, so I put it in my "silly targets" mental file. Passers-by would stare in amazement at this demented kangaroo, bounding along in a tracksuit, muttering "256, 257, 258" through clenched teeth.

So when it comes to official literacy and numeracy goals for the next millennium, or the one after, for that matter, I'm your man. I know lots of like-minded obsessives, so I can also rustle up a whole team of Olympic-standard targeteers for you, no problem. (That's 248 words up to now, nearly a quarter of my target already reached).

The trouble with setting national or local targets is that not everyone can be driven by them. People with high achievement motivation revel in trying to meet specific objectives. Others, however, are intimidated by them, and some are totally indifferent. Even target fanatics can be put off by goals that are beyond them.

If setting and meeting specific targets is to be a central feature of our effort to equip children as fully as possible for the complexities of life in the next century, then a good deal of thought must be given to the whole process.

In 1993, as part of the Birmingham Education Commission, Tim Brighouse and I worked into the early hours one night to devise a realistic scheme of target setting for the city of Birmingham. We came up with several features we thought were important.

First of all, schools had to be involved in the setting of their targets. If each school could improve on its previous best, this seemed a more realistic way of raising standards than merely imposing city-wide figures. If every school could in fact do better, then the city's overall performance would automatically improve.

Second, targets should be monitored, so that there was some accountability. A school with a greatly changed intake, for example, might have to set different targets compared with one where the type of pupil entry had not changed.

An important third point was made by an industrialist member of the Birmingham Education Commission. In industry and commerce, he said, an overall commitment to improve production would be accompanied by an investment plan.

A fourth suggestion was that targets should not be confined to numeracy and literacy. Why should children not be entitled to learn to swim, play a musical instrument, go on a field trip, take part in a public performance, see a theatrical production, participate in an environmental project, or help in the community as a good citizen?

Many of the proposals were implemented. Birmingham schools did try to improve on their previous best, and most succeeded. The city did invest more money in its schools.

The result has been an impressive increase in children's test scores, the latest figures showing well above national average improvements.

In the Leverhulme Primary Project which I directed, we found an interesting range of practice in the setting and monitoring of targets. There were reservations as well as endorsements for the idea. Greatest enthusiasm seemed to come from schools that were setting and trying to meet their own targets.

As an overall strategy for raising children's achievement, target setting is still unproven, despite some impressive circumstantial evidence from Birmingham. It clearly depends on how it is implemented. It can be a useful servant, but a cruel master.

Just imagine if it came to dominate our lives. Obsessives like me and my pal Joe Targeteer would love it. After Joe finishes his second wheaty thing for breakfast, not one bite more nor one bite less, with his precisely 200 millilitres of semi-skimmed milk, in just three minutes, he sets off for work. Leaving home at his exactly predetermined hour, he drives the 3.87 miles (measured daily on the trip mileometer, having found the shortest route years ago) in a record time. Phew, a good job the last set of lights was on green.

Joe Targeteer calls the register in under a minute, but only just (damn both Wolfram-Eschenbach and Zabkiewiech).

Then he hands out the 32 books he marked the evening before (another record time achieved - it used to take more than 70 seconds, until last night, just 68 seconds each on average, but that's not including the time it took to pick up one book and put down another, which would have added another three seconds and pushed it over the 70-second mark; that's not cheating, honest, only fair play).

The children have done quite well. Seventeen exceeded their target of 250 words (thank goodness it's a majority, so Joe can now legitimately write in his neat little record book "Most children met their target", even though Darren Rowbottom only wrote "This is complete and utter garbage" 42 times).

If only the whole human race was constructed like Joe and me, I am sure our problems would be over. We targeteers will leap through fire to tick off our tasks.

So I'll just count up the words one more time . . . 997, 998, 999, 1,000. Target achieved. Done. Another tick.

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