Arbitrary targets wide of the mark

11th September 1998 at 01:00
Pat Sweeney regrets the absence of a proper process of collaboration among schools, local authorities and Government

There is nothing new about target setting in schools. Ever since the heady days of the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, staff have tried to identify targets and tasks on an annual basis. These have often been ambitious, and teachers have been rigorous in evaluating targets and scrupulous in striving to improve the service which they offer to young people and their parents.

In Holy Rood High School during the current session we have targets relating to attainment, learning and teaching, 5-14, Higher Still and information technology for every subject department. There is absolutely no resistance to the setting of targets or to the increased level of accountability which they represent.

Holy Rood's targets have been generated in consultation with staff so far as time constraints have allowed. At the very least, everybody knows about them and all staff will try, whether with wide-eyed enthusiasm or hard-bitten scepticism to make them happen. This is just part-and-parcel of their day-to-day professionalism. Target setting holds no fears for them and their self-evaluation against whole-school and departmental targets can be exceedingly self-critical.

However, this dedicated and committed assemblage of teachers has been dismayed and discouraged by the recent Government exercise in targets by post. The targets themselves are not so daunting as to be unachievable. Indeed, one or two of our three-year targets have been achieved already. No, it is the ham-fisted approach and the sheer political insensitivity of the whole process which has provoked mass incredulity and resentment. The inspectorate and the minister's action group on standards have been quietly blaming each other for the resulting debacle. By the time the then education minister Brian Wilson - an eminently sensible and cautious sort of chap - arrived in Holy Rood in June, the "gung-ho" language of earlier official pronouncements on the subject had been replaced with a much more tentative approach. The provisional targets were simply first steps, a toe in the water of target setting. Nothing had been finalised, you understand. This reassurance brought some relief to colleagues bemused both by the logic behind the targets and by the accompanying explanation.

The gaping lacunae in the Government's previously undiscovered formula for target setting have been well rehearsed. Free-meal entitlement as the sole indicator of socio-economic conditions was totally inadequate. Schools in deprived areas which had harboured some hope that a value-added approach would be fairer to them were jolted out of their optimism as they discovered that the leafy suburbs had once again had gentler treatment. No allowance was made for pupils delaying Higher grade to sixth year, as happens successfully in many schools, etc etc. The whole thing might well have been entitled "Dire Still".

Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of this precipitative initiative is the implicit undermining of the position of the local authority. It would appear that a degree of what psychologists call role confusion has crept in. Edinburgh, for example, has a solid record of development planning, with targets identified at school level and then agreed with the local authority within a process which is clearly defined and enjoys virtually universal consensus. Targets delivered by parachute from a great and unseen height have no place in this process. While conscientious people will do what they can to achieve them, targets pronounced ex cathedra will not have the endorsement of hearts and minds which effective management requires.

Is the education authority destined to become, under the brave new world of the Scottish parliament, a mail distribution centre for government edicts? Or can Holyrood empower schools to grow, develop and improve through the professionalism of their staff and the commitment and support of their communities?

Schools can be encouraged to set precise and measurable outcomes for every area of their work, including exam results, learning and teaching, information, and links with parents and the community. They can do this at school level, in the light of local knowledge and circumstances. Their conclusions should be endorsed or refined by the local authorities, whose role will then be to support and resource the agreed agenda. The Scottish Office could restrict itself to ensuring that local authorities discharge this responsibility properly. Recent Delphic utterances suggest that the whole target setting initiative may after all be taken forward in a climate of partnership and constructive collaboration, and that the cudgels can be put away for another day. This would be a useful target for all concerned.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh.

A new column, The Sweeney, will begin next week

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