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Fly the flag of success over your school

I was brought up with target setting. In the years after 1945, the nation was desperate for coal. Each mine had a weekly production target. At our local pit, when the target was exceeded, a flag was raised over the colliery offices for all to see. My childhood memory is that there was a genuine and general feeling of satisfaction when this occurred.

In our village at least, the culture of achievement was firmly embedded. The nation's needs were plain to see; the relationship between hard work and attainment was obvious; nationalisation had cleared out the profit-taking coal-owners, and the new government, in those post-1945 years, was generally trusted by the workforce.

If this is an analogy with what is happening in education today, it is tempting to point out just how quickly the enthusiasm waned when it became clear that the burden was being carried by the coalface workers, whose efforts were being let down by poor leadership and lack of capital investment.

Target-setting, says the Department of Education and Employment, is "taking action by setting specific goals and targets designed to raise educational standards". It was given prominence early this academic year when Gillian Shephard, then Secretary of State for Education, said there were going to be targets for improvement in national test scores, intended to raise, say, the number of 11-year-olds reaching level 4 from 48 per cent to 75 per cent. In support, the School Curriculum and Assesment Authority would be providing benchmarking data so that schools could compare themselves with others of a similar type. Labour is continuing down the same road, setting its own target of 80 per cent for 11-year-olds reaching level 4. So target-setting and benchmarking are here to stay.

For most schools, though, national long-term targets will not be the immediate issue. For them, the challenge will be to raise performance in line with their own chosen targets based on previous performance and on the performance of similar schools. Even at this level, though, there is a host of questions for teachers and governors to address.

One of the most insistent is that of where actually to set the targets. The problems that arise from being either too ambitious or too cautious hardly need to be spelled out. Thus we have target-setting's first cousin,benchmarking, which is the process of putting the school's performance alongside that of schools of similar type, so that realistic comparisons can be made and achievable targets set.

Already, a body of experience in benchmarking is emerging, largely from those local authorities that have enthusiastically embraced the principle. What's happening in go-ahead Kirklees (see story below) illustrates the issues very well. The approach to benchmarking in this West Yorkshire authority is typical of what is happening in several others. The details may vary - Birmingham has been working on benchmarking and target-setting with a pilot group of 21 schools divided into three socio-economi c family groups according to free school meals, ethnicity and the extent of pupil mobility.

Benchmarking, though, is only the start. Kirklees, Birmingham and numerous other authorities, have built upon this work a structure of support that enables schools to decide how much better they want to do, which brings us back to target-setting.

The art is to set targets that are achievable yet challenging and which the people involved can believe in. The key acronym is SMART - targets should be Specific; Measurable and Manageable; Achievable, Appropriate and Agreed; Relevant, Realistic and Recorded; and Timetabled.

Although the main thrust of national policy is towards improvements in core skills and external examination performance, authorities and schools are anxious that target-setting should be broader in scope. The obvious fear is that schools might dedicate themselves solely to the chasing of test scores in the basic skills.

Kirklees, for example, supplements its benchmarking data with a booklet that encourages target-setting across most of the 60 or so headings for which data is available. Each school has to make drastically focused priorities within these - reducing them to three or four - but their existence on paper is a constant reminder that, perhaps, "energy costs per square metre of floor area" or "percentage of pupils authorised absence" are not immutable figures, and that assaults upon them are capable of contributing to the quality of learning.

The authority also emphasises the need to preserve the quality of school life across a range of activities. "We have a tradition of belief in educational breadth that we do not want to lose, going back to Alec Clegg and the old West Riding" is how Sue Mulvany, a Kirklees inspector, puts it.

In Birmingham, too, the emphasis is on developing the whole child: a distinction is drawn between "achievement" and "attainment". David Brodie, seconded to be director of core skills in the city from Prince Albert primary school - where national-te st results in mathematics have been transformed by target-setting - , explained that achievement is concerned with the whole of the child's experience in school. He cites such areas as personal development, involvement in out-of-school activities. "Teachers are good at judging this sort of thing. "

However, attainment, he explains, is "hard measures from outside", meaning national-test scores, National Foundation for Educational Research test results and examination performance. The danger implicit in setting up a "target" culture is that schools might, in David Brodie's words, "Go down the attainment route and not produce the rounded child."

One component of the SMART acronym likely to be overlooked is the last one: timing. Distant targets lose their urgency. Jerry Brown at Kirklees talks of "tracking children #201; It is no good waiting for the end of the key stage and then saying that you have not met the target."

The best approach, perhaps, is to have a series of tactically placed cumulative targets with which to build a picture as time goes on. This implies the use of tests to map progress. Jerry Brown outlines a primary school pattern that might involve "baseline assessment on entry; national tests in Year 2, NFER Reading Tests in Year 3, the new optional tests in Year 4, national tests at Year 6".

At secondary level, schools in Nottingham are using exactly this cumulative approach with the aid of performance data from a series of tests at six-monthly intervals during Years 10 and 11. Results from that authority's STAMP programme - Setting Targets and Monitoring Progress - can be analysed in a range of ways. For example, if a particular pupil's rate of progress, seems to be leading, test by test, towards a grade D then, with plenty of time in hand, a target of grade C becomes realistic and possible.

Neither benchmarking nor target-setting will of themselves bring about improvement. In an as yet unpublished consultation document on the involvement of governors

in target-setting, Professor Michael Barber, the DFEE's new school improvement supremo, and Peter Earley write: "Targets only have value if they lead to action ... each target requires a plan

of action setting out: A timetable for action. Who will be responsible for ensuring the action takes place. What success will look like. What support and resources will be needed. " The key lies in what happens at classroom level - in the words of Sue Mulvany of Kirklees, "What do we stop doing? What do we start doing? What do we keep on doing?"

To a great extent, each school, having set its targets, works out its own way of reaching them. However, a body of experience, translating into agreed good practice, is emerging, which can be grouped under the following headings.

* releasing craft knowledge.

This is a phrase used by David Brodie, and stems from the thinking of Birmingham chief education officer, Tim Brighouse, who believes that teachers have knowledge and skills that should be more freely shared. The expectation is that where schools are grouped for benchmarking, the teachers will look at strengths and weaknesses across the group, with a view to tapping into each other's skills.

Both in Kirklees and in Birmingham, the experience is that, as teachers grow more confident within their school groups, they become increasingly willing to look at individual weaknesses. Jerry Brown at Kirklees speaks of heads being "eager and relaxed with each other", and Sue Mulvany believes that, in any case, "very few teachers are ineffective across the board. They all have strengths and weaknesses."

* targeting groups of pupils.

Some of the most striking improvements have been made in schools where there has been a deliberate policy of concentrating resources on particular pupils. Just which pupils are targeted, across which subjects and for how long varies according to each school's philosophy and aims. Very often, though, the effort is directed at pupils who are hovering, as it were, between success and failure - they are given attention and a taste of success. The evidence is not only that it works but that there is a halo effect that encompasses other pupils in the school.

At Prince Albert primary school in Birmingham, enormous improvements have been made in mathematics since the school embarked, in 1991, on the targeting of groups of children in years 2, 3 and 5. Two sorts of pupil were targeted: those only just coping with the work, and potential high- flyers. The focus falls on groups of about 10 pupils in each class, for six weeks at a time. Techniques include withdrawal, support in class, personal mentoring and concentrated class teaching.

Success at Prince Albert is measured by the improvement in key stage 1 results in mathematics. In 1991, 45 per cent of pupils achieved level 2 but none achieved level 3. The following year, after intensive targeting, the equivalent figures were 76 per cent and 6 per cent. In 1996, 83 per cent achieved level 2 or above, and 20 per cent achieved level 3.

Prince Albert uses the intensive, short-burst approach. In the secondary school, something more long-term may

be appropriate. At Heywood Community School in Rochdale, GCSE results were improved across the board by putting "targeted" pupils into two permanent rival groups, each consisting of pupils who are considered capable of GCSE grade C or better in any core subject. The headteacher, Jim Bleakley, believes that "If a student has the potential to get a C or above in one subject then they have the potential to achieve it in five".

Importantly, at Heywood, all results and targets are made public. Jim Bleakley says: "There's been a suggestion that underachieving boys should be encouraged privately because of losing street cred. What we've done here is create a culture where they would lose street cred if they didn't work."

* setting targets for pupils.

There is a great deal of logic in an approach which says that if you set individual, intelligible and attainable targets for pupils, and give support in attaining them, then school improvement will inevitably follow. This is the approach at Rushcliffe School in Nottingham, where performance data is used in exactly that way.

Jan Wood, a deputy head, believes that many hardworking children need help in directing their efforts more efficiently. Feeding good performance data to pupils and giving time for form tutors to talk to them about improvement is, she suggests, more effective than merely setting "top-down" whole-school targets. "Our focus is to use data to set targets at pupil level. If you start at the bottom, the school will automatically show overall improvement."

Although Jan Wood is naturally cautious about cause and effect, she is pleased that last year's GCSE results showed a significant improvement, and she looks forward to seeing the trend continued.

Tutorial support - in regular meetings or special mentoring sessions - is increasingly used in secondary schools to help pupils improve their work. This also has the effect, according to Jan Wood, "of bringing together the pastoral and academic sides of school life."

* good teaching.

Head after head points out that setting targets has to go hand in hand with a review of what happens in class. Birmingham's school improvement programme heavily emphasises this - thus David Brodie talks of "informed and deliberate teaching". He is an exponent of "the diamond-shaped lesson": children together for direct teaching, then going into differentiated work and then coming together again at the end to review what has been learned. Such direct involvement by heads in classroom practice has not always been common in our schools, and yet real improvement depends upon it.

Sue Mulvany speaks of "the importance of heads intervening in classroom practice". And Jim Bleakley believes that, "Teachers have to accept a much greater responsibility for ensuring that the students achieve - to see themselves as professionals whose job is to motivate."

In line with this, is the belief of successful heads that children want to achieve but have to be told very precisely how to do it. According to Jim Bleakley: "Negative comments such as 'must work harder' are no good at all," and Jan Wood suggested that "Kids are not complacent. They like to be shown what they have to do to get a higher mark."

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