The Blair government's approach to education is like no other. It has taken the view that it is big business. From its friends in industry it has learned that the way to run big business is through targets, with incentives and sanctions attached.
The education system is huge. About a quarter of the UK's population is involved in formal education as participants. There are more than a million teachers. The costs are set to rise to pound;68.4 billion by 2005. About 80 per cent of this is raised through central taxation.
It is easy to see why industry's best practice should have such appeal. Targets can be used to give a clear sense of direction and they are a powerful means of control. They provide a basis for accounting for vast sums of public expenditure. To a politician they have the added attraction of a simple language for presenting policies to voters. How better to underline your commitment to raising literacy and numeracy levels than to set precise targets and offer to resign if they are not met (even if you don't really mean it)?
John Major's government toyed with targets, but they barely had an impact because they were aspirational, applied post-school and couched in the unfamiliar language of national vocational qualifications. Blair's government has gone the whole hog. The result has been a target explosion. There are performance targets for ages 11, 14, 16, 19 and 21, and for economically active adults.
There are participation targets for schools, 18 to 30-year-olds and adults. It has been calculated that each pupil is subject to 74 targets.
National targets have been disaggregated down to regions, local authorities and schools. They are backed by action plans. LEAs are now into the second round of education development plans. Schools have a statutory duty to set targets. Progress towards them is carefully monitored through test and examination results, and attendance figures. Funding can be conditional on meeting or exceeding targets.
The Government, until very recently at least, has counted its target-setting agenda a great success. It has pointed to the considerable improvement among 11-year-olds in English and maths with 12 and 11 percentage points more respectively achieving the expected standard since it came to office. It has also claimed credit for a five percentage point rise in GCSE results.
But the icing on the cake has been the way performance has leapt in international comparisons. Between the Third International Maths and Science (TIMSS) study in 1995 and the Programme of International Student Achievement (PISA) study in 2000, 15-year-olds in England had risen from 17th to eighth in maths. In science, by 2000, they had reached the giddy heights of third, and in reading came ninth out of the 33 nations or communities.
All of this is true, but the details repay closer inspection. Chart 1 (below) shows the English and maths performance of 11-year-olds since the results were published in 1995. While there has been a substantial improvement since the targets were announced in 1997, in fact, the rate of increase was greater in the two preceding years.
It looks as if the feedback from the publication of the results may itself have been enough to prompt the improvement and the targets were an unnecessary addition. More than that, they could be counterproductive since this year they have, in effect, turned the success in improving literacy and numeracy into the failure of not meeting the targets. That targets may be unnecessary is supported by what has happened to primary science where, without benefit of targets, improvements have run ahead of those in English and maths.
Whereas the targets for 11-year-olds at least have some logical basis - the intention that all primary school children should reach a certain level of competence in handling words and numbers irrespective of their starting point - those for 16-year-olds seem to have been a mere projection of what was already happening. The proportion getting five GCSE grades A* to C has increased every year since the exam was introduced in 1988. The 50 per cent target has had no discernible impact on the rate of increase.
In the PISA study, English 15-year-olds have done well, but they will hardly have been affected by the Government's education policies. Chart 2 (below right)shows while England has indeed progressed from 17th to eighth in maths, Scotland, without targets, has moved up from 21st to fifth.
What is striking about the relative positions of the 26 countries which took part in both PISA and TIMSS is the way all the Anglophone countries improved their positions. England's better performance is part of that trend, which probably reflects the change in nature of the questions between the two studies.
There are, therefore, good reasons for questioning the assumption that targets have been a success. Indeed, they have been harmful. To work at all, targets must be intrinsic. Education differs crucially from industry in that there is no product. The point of education is to benefit the people engaged in it. Products have to be simulated as test results and qualifications.
Simulating targets changes the nature of the process. The point of education becomes to get the output numbers right. Teachers are turned into the producers of test results, cutting across their professional judgment. This has a severe distorting effect: the curriculum suffers and the cheats and fiddles which have so far come to light are only the tip of the iceberg.
Not only do targets distort, but they are also wasteful. An enormous bureaucracy has been established to set them, communicate them and compile results. As we have seen with the A-level debacle, the exam boards have not been able to cope. Further-more, a lot of jobs have been created around education which have tempted scarce teachers away from the classroom. The Chancellor's "something for something" leads to targets continually being raised, implying - wrongly - that in education more is always better.
The Government has been noticeably quieter about targets since its failure to meet those for literacy, numeracy and truancy. But it shows no sign of re-thinking the approach. It would be wise to examine whether targets really do "energise" in the way that it hopes and consider the extent to which they distort and demoralise. It could well be that national targets are an unnecessary encumbrance and that it would be much better to leave schools to set their own goals.
Alan Smithers is the Sydney Jones professor of education and director of the centre for education and employment research at the University of Liverpool. Email firstname.lastname@example.org