Do education targets work?

'I witnessed and joined in the cramming which occurs from reception to Year 6'

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

New Labour's priority has been to turn around primary school achievement.

In promising better primary schools, the Blair government promised us not simply better-educated children, but a generation with better life chances.

The political goal was not that pupils would reap the benefits in later life of a better education. What was desired was rapidly increasing numbers, showing success. This is where targets came in.

There are legitimate qualms about the reforms themselves, the overly prescriptive nature of the numeracy and literacy strategies, for example.

Yet, perversely, what has been the greatest setback to the improvement drive is the Government's desperation to prove this improvement.

Two fundamental problems with government targets have beleaguered the primary sector. First, they have necessitated quantifiable performance measures requiring an enormous emphasis on testing. Second, the targets set were over-optimistic, putting huge political pressure on schools, civil servants and ministers.

The result has been an obsession with target-chasing which has distorted activity in far too many primary schools. Instead of being a useful tool to measure pupils' achievements, standardised tests become the raison d'etre of teaching, the benchmark of whether a school succeeds or fails.

In schools with "good" intakes, targets and testing have been less distracting. In middle-class catchment areas, schools were producing literate and numerate children before New Labour came into power. National tests in these schools can be safely taken in pupils' and teachers' stride as a genuine snapshot of learning.

Where targets and testing are crippling are in those schools which the New Labour school improvement drive was designed to address. For it is in struggling schools with less privileged intakes that the heat of target pressure is being felt.

The combination of flawed strategy and unrealistic performance requirements, neither of which allow for idiosyncrasy, has led to a hugely damaging pandemic of teaching to the test.

Under pressure from bureaucrats to achieve, schools which desperately need to cater to their pupils' diverse requirements are having to tailor teaching to the tests. This distortion matters because of the gaps it leaves in understanding and learning.

Those whom the school improvement drive is theoretically helping the most are thus, in fact, losing out the most. The nature of national curriculum tests means that too many of our most deprived pupils leave primary school unable to cope with the demands of secondary school.

Tower Hamlets, the east London borough where I used to teach, seems to be a prime illustration of the distorting impact of government targets.

Widely held up as a stellar example of the national improvement drive, in my experience the value of this improvement is questionable. As a Year 2 teacher in this highly deprived borough, I witnessed and joined in the cramming which occurs from reception to Year 6. Gaping holes were being left in pupils' learning through the focus on getting them to the right level in the tests.

Reaching the necessary targets was demonstrably for the Government's benefit, not the pupils'. The real concern is not that rising primary test performance doesn't necessarily signify great leaps in learning; it is that all too often real learning has taken a backward step. We should not be worried that the Government has missed its targets again; we should worry that it came so close to reaching them.

Anastasia de Waal is head of family and education at the independent think-tank Civitas, and author of Inspection, Inspection, Inspection: How Ofsted crushes independent schools and independent teachers

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