Targets, targets, targets: that's the route to excellence, according to New Labour thinking. Emma Burstall visits a pioneering school that has put the mantra into practice - with impressive results
Teachers usually know what their goal is for a lesson, but do their pupils? The answer is no, according to headteacher Helen Jones, who has tried to solve the problem in her own school by introducing a policy of objective-setting.
Teachers at Cliftonville Middle School, Northampton, are expected to tell their children at the start of each lesson what they are going to learn and what the teacher will be looking for. They set individual targets for pupils and keep close tabs in special record books on whether they are being met. And they regularly invite children to the front of the class to discuss their action points individually.
In history, for example, a child might be told he or she is good at recounting events but does not make specific enough reference to cause and effect. The target is to concentrate on analysis. This way, says Mrs Jones, teachers enter into a "focused dialogue" with children via their work, a practice that has helped raise standards throughout the school.
It sounds simple, but the evidence suggests it works. This year 14 per cent more 11-year-olds than in 1996 achieved the target level 4 or above in national science tests, 9 per cent more in maths and 2 per cent more in English. Pupil numbers at the 9-13 school have shot up. Two years ago when Mrs Jones took over the reins there were 225 and the school was under-subscribed. Now there are 270.
"We've found that, if you share with the children individually as well as collectively what's expected of them, they rise to the challenge and begin to respond as individuals," says Mrs Jones.But is objective-setting really new? Haven't good teachers always explained what is what to children ?
Good teachers, yes, says Mrs Jones. But there are still plenty around who fail to make their objectives clear. Besides, identifying the practice as a specific focus in her school has helped bring it to the forefront of thinking. "I go into lots of schools and see people just putting a tick at the end of a child's work or giving a mark out of 10," she says. "Children have no incentive to improve if they feel the teacher isn't really interested in something they've spent a lot of time on."
The idea of objective-setting came to Mrs Jones soon after she arrived at the school and noticed some teaching inconsistencies. A report from OFSTED in 1996 pinpointed weaknesses, especially in science, confirming her view that something had to be be done. "We knew we had to firm up on planning and increase teacher expertise and confidence. We also knew we had to include more pace and vigour in lessons," she says.
She and two other senior members of staff decided to take a long, hard look at what constitutes a good lesson. A key factor, they concluded, was that all children should know exactly what they were going to learn in a lesson and what the teacher expected of them. This was relayed to staff who were also told to negotiate and set individual targets with pupils following the SMART model (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timed).
They were asked not always to set skill-based targets but to focus on attitudes, for example, too. And at planned meetings they were encouraged to look at a variety of work and share good practice.
"There's no doubt that objective-setting is time-consuming for staff who give a lot of thought to making constructive, diagnostic comments at the end of pupils' work. But they can do some marking during class time while children whose work has already been corrected get on with the tasks set, and the rewards are enormous. Teachers get to know their children really well and can see tangible improvements during the course of the year," says Mrs Jones.
"What is more, children love it when a teacher says, 'I've written to you. Take a couple of minutes to read it and if I've asked you to do something, please do so now.' They feel really valued."
Pupils seem to appreciate the extra time teachers spend marking their work, and knowing exactly what is expected of them. Andrew Kinchella, 10, says he moved to Cliftonville Middle School after Christmas because he felt he was not being pushed enough. "Teachers take much more of an interest in you here. At my old school you'd just get a tick at the end of your work or a 'quite good' and that was it. Here they suggest how you can improve."
TIPS FOR SETTING TARGETS
* Make sure you know what you are trying to achieve in each lesson and that the children understand too.
* Ensure pupils' individual targets are realistic and achievable.
* Respond punctually to children's work in language they understand and writing they can read.
* Give them time to read what you have written at the beginning of each lesson.
* Make sure they do what they have been asked.
* Sit beside the child when you are talking individually. Sitting behind a deskcreates a barrier.
* Give children too many action points. Concentrate on just one target, such as spelling or punctuation, at a time.
* Use red pen to mark work. It is intrusive and appears to devalue something the child may have spent a long time on, says Mrs Jones.