Middle managers from schools in the home counties are working towards vocational qualifications at the same time as giving their schools a head start in preparing for compulsory target setting.
Forty-two teachers from schools in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire - mostly heads of year or heads of department - are taking part in a training programme devised by Thames Valley Enterprise, the local training and enterprise council.
The programme, which is believed to be the first of its kind, involves candidates designing a project which meets the twin objectives of helping their school set performance targets and enabling the teachers to gain two units towards a level 4 national vocational qualification in management. Later they will be given the chance to gain qualifications in key skills such as communication, information technology and application of number.
"Middle managers have a significant role to play in target setting, both at departmental level and at a pastoral level," said Dorothy Shirvell, a trainer with Hampshire-based management development group Qudos UK, who is running the programme for Thames Valley Enterprise. "If they are directly involved in setting targets, they feel that they own them. It's much better than imposing them."
Many of the candidates have chosen predictable targets such as comparing exam scores and looking at how the performance of individual pupils, in particular low-achievers, compares over time. Others have selected more unusual subjects, including gender studies and the teaching and working environment within a school.
Sometimes the information a teacher requires is already available in the school. Other teachers have been forced to start from scratch. "Many of them are pioneering target setting in their schools," said Ms Shirvell.
Kate Sanders, head of humanities at Baylis Court school, an 11-16 girls comprehensive in Slough, is one of six teachers who has gained the first NVQ unit which requires candidates to provide information to support decision-making. She began by comparing key stage 3 test scores with GCSE results in her own department before, at the request of her head, expanding the project to cover English, maths and science.
Although Baylis Court was reluctant for its targets to be published in detail at this stage, the targets include increasing the number of GCSE students gaining five good grades by 3 per cent over the next two years.
Departmental policy within humanities has been changed to include target setting, and each pupil will be given a graph to check that they are achieving their target grades. "I want to see what effect targets have on pupils' motivation and achievement. It should mean that we can identify children who are under-achieving at an early stage," she explained.
Margaret Raff, senior education executive with Thames Valley Enterprise, said the TEC wants to help schools raise levels of achievement. But it is also keen to see vocational qualifications receive a higher profile in schools.
"Teachers are more likely to value vocational qualifications if they have gained one themselves."
The programme, including gaining the two NVQ units and possibly a key skills qualification, is expected to take about 12 months. Instead of building up a portfolio of evidence in the same way as for other NVQs, candidates are assessed through a presentation given to their head and other senior managers.
Having gained the first unit, teachers must develop their projects so that they can be assessed for a second unit requiring them to manage the performance of teams and individuals. According to Dorothy Shirvell, it is essential that candidates do not work in isolation and that their projects have the full support of senior managers: "Once a middle manager has a germ of an idea, they go and talk to their head and makes sure that it fits in with the objectives of the school."
Although candidates would be encouraged to try to gain a full NVQ in management, the target-setting project and the potential benefits to the school were more important than gaining NVQ units, she added.
Geoff Wright, head of the sixth form at St Bernard's RC school, High Wycombe, has recently been made the school's special needs co-ordinator. He is using the programme to update the school's system for assessing children with special needs. "I'm going to get staff more involved in setting targets for children, so that they are more aware of who is on the special needs register," he said.
Three middle managers from St Bartholomew's school, Newbury, are working together even though they are in charge of separate projects. Topics include tackling under-achievement among year nine pupils, helping GCSE students to prepare for exams using sixth-form mentors and checking how the school's overall exam scores compare with national targets prior to the introduction of compulsory target setting next September.
"Heads of faculty should be able to inform year tutors about standards of attainment in each subject," said Ann Pardoe, St Bartholomew's head of maths and computing. "I'm looking at how other schools have done it and the computer back-up systems we need."
Neil Cook, a deputy head of house, is helping a group of 25 pupils to prepare for their GCSEs. In spite of his enthusiasm for target setting, he stressed that it is important that teachers do not lose sight of the real reason for targets: "It's about raising standards among all pupils and helping them to prepare for Year 11 and staying on in the sixth form."