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Schools aren't factories;Opinion

A target-setting culture goes against the grain of a broad and balanced education, says Sandy McAuley

LOOKING BACK over my 24 years in education, I can certainly identify areas of weakness in my own teaching and in the system itself. There is little doubt that teachers' expectations of young people generally could have been higher. We could have been more focused on attainment. We could have been better organised, with more cost-effective use of valuable resources. We could have been more willing to evaluate ourselves critically, with the aim of improving our performance.

There have been various initiatives in the past 10 years or so which have helped move us as a profession towards all of this and provided a sharper focus for our work. TVEI, the technical and vocational education initiative, was an example of such a project, heralding the introduction of national records of achievement, student profiling, monitoring and self-evaluation and development planning (including target-setting). There was also a refreshing emphasis on the development of personal and social skills (which we see redefined as "core skills" in the Higher Still programme).

The principle of setting targets with the view to raising standards is sound and is already firmly embedded into the work of schools at several levels - from classroom teachers to those operating in middle and senior management posts. However, while targets give your work a sense of direction and purpose, they do not in themselves raise standards.

I have several problems with Raising Standards and Setting Targets. Targets should be both realistic and challenging. There are many examples of attainment targets which are totally unrealistic. This merely sets up schools to fail and is damaging to the morale of teachers. To use such an approach with pupils would certainly not receive widespread public approval.

To ensure that staff aspire towards the targets, it is necessary to have involved them fully in the consultation process. Unlike the targets embedded in our school development plans, which have been fully discussed and agreed with staff, the latest targets are viewed as having been imposed rather than negotiated. This is not healthy and does not guarantee commitment - nor, ultimately, results.

In addition, there are large question marks over the validity of the exercise, given inconsistencies in the data collection. Examples of this being the simplistic grouping of schools by their free meal entitlement for ease of comparison and the amount of sheer guesswork involved in the determination of 5-14 levels. As someone who has always supported the concept, this sort of target-setting merely damages the credibility of such a valuable approach.

I also fear that the inevitable drive towards such attainment targets will lead to the cramming of content, to the detriment of skills development.

There is a danger that the exercise is more about the teacher's ability to tutor pupils in examination technique and information processing than in imparting real "learning skills". Surely our youngsters deserve better?

The ability to work co-operatively, make decisions independently, solve problems effectively and think creatively are skills held in high regard by employers. Unfortunately, they are not easily measured and that may be the basic problem.

In my view, schools should not be viewed as "examination factories".

Academic achievement is not to be sneered at, but a balance has to be sought between the production of certificates and the need to provide young people with a "moral platform" and the skills necessary for them to succeed in the world.

Targets create pressure and a degree of accountability. This can be a powerful force in making real progress. However, evaluation must be handled professionally and supported by research. Teacher-bashing in the press simply fuels the fires of disillusionment and cynicism.

As a headteacher, I look around my own staffroom and marvel at the commitment of the teachers to pupil achievement in so many ways - they want the very best for their pupils. It does them a grave disservice to do anything other than support and applaud their efforts.

And so I look back on my own teaching career. I thought I was a "good teacher". I considered the long hours I spent on behalf of young people worth while. I was sure my contribution had been useful. In today's terms, I am forced to question all of this. How many of our young teachers are filled with such anxieties? They are the key to ensuring that our education service continues to improve and progress.

We must support and encourage their development in a positive and creative manner. I wonder if the current climate enables this.

Sandy McAuley is headteacher of Leith Academy, Edinburgh. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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