Do education targets work?

'Teaching is an art-form, not a science. It is about exciting passions'

The finale of our series questions the value of New Labour's school improvement drive

Estelle Morris resigned as education secretary due in part to her "failure"

to meet the Government's literacy and numeracy target. She later told MPs that an ill-conceived performance target had turned success into failure.

It is now fashionable to criticise targets.

But it is wrong to conclude that they should be abandoned. All organisations set them. Targets, or "public service agreements" in Whitehall jargon, drive up standards universally, guaranteeing equity in publicly-funded services.

The education target with greatest salience is literacy. In 1996, only 57 per cent of 11-year-olds in England and Wales were at the literacy standard expected of their age. By 2002, that figure had risen to 75 per cent after decades of stagnation.

Schools in the poorest areas improved the fastest, according to research by the Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics. At the core of the National Literacy Strategy are credible targets, encouraging teachers and parents to recognise that the "3Rs" are the big priority.

A survey by the Centre for British Teachers showed that 95 per cent of primary heads backed the literacy and numeracy approach. But carefully formulated targets have more generic benefits. In schools, they shift attention from inputs (money and materials) to outputs (learning and achievement). Targets require the collection of data, exposing under-performance.

This does not mean that targets cannot be better. They should only be set for those facets of education that schools can genuinely affect. Targets must be part of a balanced approach to improvement.

As Michael Barber, former head of the Government's delivery unit has reflected, reform has three types. The analogy is that of a computer. There is "hardware" which is funding, the capital for building works, and the qualifications framework. Then there is the "operating system", performance management and the quality of provision. Finally, there is "software", including strategies for teaching and learning.

Governments have a significant role in the first two, but should encourage best practice in the third. They should try to curb the endless "software"

announcements that interfere in the fine detail of running a school.

My former No 10 colleague, Peter Hyman, now a teacher at Islington Green school, has reflected that the chasm between Downing Street and the front line is extraordinarily wide (1 out of 10: from Downing Street vision to classroom reality, Vintage Books, 2005).

Governments are about the "big picture" and "big targets": literacy, numeracy, GCSEs. They demand that schools and teachers deliver. However, there are few "quick wins". Teaching is an art-form, not an exact science.

It is about exciting passions, as WB Yeats said: "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire."

No other government has been so precise about what it intends to do. Yet, as the media and in turn the public urge it to deliver more, faster, greater pressure is placed on front-line staff. This is unsustainable.

Future governments will need to recognise that top-down targets have their limits.

Recent reports have highlighted ways to improve target-setting (To the Point: a blueprint for good targets, Social Market Foundation 2005).

Targets should be few. They should be deployed alongside the parental voice. They should not crowd out the enrichment that comes from learning for its own sake. But abandoning targets, not refining them, would be a monumental error.

Patrick Diamond is a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and a former special adviser in the Prime Minister's policy unit

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