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Targets are such a load of bull

The wisdom of Henry Walpole

The new term is barely a month old but already heads have received news from the Government that they need to do more to improve standards. For those cynical school leaders who may have passed Ed Balls' letter straight to the caretaker's bonfire for official circulars, there is good news: the Government is already well on track for its target to "set more targets" by the end of this year.

I am still bemused by ministers' insistence that there has been dramatic improvement in education standards that is measured by essentially meaningless tests at 11. No doubt, before New Labour brought its blue skies thinking approach on board, there was little learning which accounts for the lack of scientific and economic advances in this country before 1997. Of course, this country has produced figures such as Isaac Newton, but just think how much better his theories would have been if his school had provided him with a laminated board with his times tables on one side and high-frequency words ("baby", "balloon", "plague pustule") on the other.

Like many teachers, I survived the 1970s education system. This was a different age when teachers would unashamedly put their feet up on the desk and read the Racing Post while you got on with "topic folders". Nowadays, teachers are so busy with pupils demanding attention that they barely have time in lessons to send text messages to arrange after-school drinks. Did the more relaxed approach affect my education? Apart from a chronic inability to use English grammar and a scar on my lip from when I zipped up that snorkel parka too tight, I seem to have done OK.

For the past 10 years, teaching has become more and more tightly controlled by endless initiatives, all with an underlying impetus to raise Sats results. All teachers realise there are some pupils who are just never going to get a level 4 (or level 3 or 2 for that matter) but the drive towards arbitrary and hollow results goes on. The only widely used independent measure of children's progress (Pips) shows that everything has stayed pretty much the same year on year.

No self-respecting secondary teacher would take key stage 2 Sats results as an indicator of ability. I have yet to hear of an interviewer asking a potential employee what level he achieved in science at 11. Even politicians can get swept up in the madness, although of course, if they set their targets over a long enough time span, they know that they will have been reshuffled long before they are held to account (Hello, Mr. Blunkett!).

How useful are targets? Mine have always been the same: retire at 40 and go to the gym every day. I've laminated them on a card and stuck them on my fridge. I am 40 next year, my pension is still short and my waist size continues to increase. If only I'd stuck a crappy Clip Art picture of an archery target next to them, I might have a chance.

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